By Jonathan O'Connell
Capital Business Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:53 PM
At small meetings in neighborhoods where it plans to open its first D.C. locations, Wal-Mart is unveiling new urban store designs and trying to alleviate concerns about its employment practices to gain support for its entrance into the city.
At a meeting Tuesday night at a police station in the Gateway neighborhood of Northeast, company officials and real estate developers unveiled plans for a shopping center on New York Avenue that would feature a 120,000-square-foot Wal-Mart atop another big-box store. About 50 people were in the audience.
Rather than a sea of surface parking - the typical front lawn for a Wal-Mart - the shopping center would feature an above-ground parking garage.
"This is not your typical superstore," commented D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).
At the same time, across town at the Emory United Methodist Church in Brightwood, officials from Foulger-Pratt, a Rockville developer, presented plans to build a single-story Wal-Mart near the intersection of Georgia and Missouri avenues Northwest. It would have a 362-space underground parking garage featuring "cartalators," or escalators for shopping carts. The brick facade has been designed to evoke the site's history as a storage barn for streetcars.
Wal-Mart officials say D.C. residents want the chain to open stores here. Officials point to a survey the company commissioned in November showing that 73 percent of city residents are "in favor."
But to bolster support and try to persuade skeptics, the company is emphasizing the fresh food, pharmacies and delicatessens the four proposed stores would bring to the neighborhoods - as well as the jobs. The other two sites are on New Jersey Avenue near Mount Vernon Square and at the intersection of East Capitol Street and 58th Street.
"We know that job creation and access to affordable food are significant needs in the city, and we think our first four stores can be part of the solution in this regard," Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said in an e-mail.
Residents have concerns. James Sydnor, who represents the area around the Georgia Avenue site on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said that residents are worried about traffic, wages, hiring and the effect a Wal-Mart would have on existing small businesses.
But he said the retail giant seemed ready to address the issues. "They want to make sure they have small, reasonable meetings and they are willing to set up as many as possible to reach out to as many people as possible," Sydnor said.
At the meeting for the Northeast store, some in the audience applauded after the company's presentation. Initial questions were about parking, management of rodents, security and whether the chain would be able to contribute to local charitable causes. "It feels like anyone who comes to this community has to, No. 1, be held accountable" for the promises they make, said Pat Fisher of Edgewood. But Fisher and others said they still wanted the store.
Thomas met with Wal-Mart officials and local labor leaders Tuesday morning and said he was pleased with the chain's initial commitment to hiring locally and providing job training. When it decided to expand in Chicago, Wal-Mart committed to spending $20 million on local charities, he said, and it is considering similar investments in the District. "Our emphasis has been on career opportunities," Thomas said.
Wal-Mart estimates that D.C. residents spent more than $41 million last year at its store outside the city. It has been looking for sites in the District for years, but Keith Morris, the company's community affairs director for the east region, said but could not find any that would accommodate the store's typical layout. By designing smaller, grocery-oriented stores, the chain may have eased the difficulties.
"It's not designed to be a regional mall to attract people from all over the place," Morris told the crowd in Northeast as he described the New York Avenue store. "It's designed for the community here."