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VALLEY NEWS

Planning Panel Considers Food Limits at Big-Box Stores

November 17, 2000|KARIMA A. HAYNES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — The Los Angeles Planning Commission is considering an ordinance that would dramatically affect consumers' shopping choices by limiting the sale of groceries at big-box discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco.

The ordinance would prohibit stores with at least 150,000 square feet from devoting more than 7.5% of the total square footage to food items.

Although there are no big-box stores in Los Angeles that now meet those specifications, ordinance proponents say they want to take steps to keep local supermarkets and corner grocery stores from being forced out of business.

After a two-hour hearing Thursday morning in a packed ballroom at the Airtel Hotel in Van Nuys, commissioners voted unanimously to direct planning staff members to review issues raised by opponents and report back to the panel in January.

At the meeting, Los Angeles Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, the ordinance's chief sponsor, said she is not opposed to warehouse-style stores, but wants to limit the amount of space they devote to groceries so they won't swallow up neighborhood supermarkets and mom-and-pop food shops.

"My motivation is to promote the local, neighborhood shopping areas that are often anchored by supermarkets," she said. "These big box, regional shopping centers are the antithesis of pedestrian-friendly shopping areas."

Big-box store owners could receive a variance from the ordinance if they demonstrate to city planners that their store would not threaten a smaller store's survival, Goldberg said.

Councilman Mike Hernandez, City Atty. Jim Hahn, organized labor and some of California's largest supermarkets also have come out in support of the measure.

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The ordinance is opposed by Wal-Mart, Kmart, Costco and commercial developers who say the measure is an attempt not only to limit grocery sales at big-box retail stores but to eliminate competition.

"The resounding success of the superstore format indicates that consumers want more choice and more convenience while shopping in their local community," said Art Jones, a spokesman for Kmart Corp. of Troy, Mich.

Joel Benoliel, senior vice president of real estate and law for Seattle-based Costco Wholesale Corp., characterized the ordinance as the latest salvo in an ongoing campaign being waged by a strong special interest group.

"It is no less than a bald attempt to hold the Los Angeles consumer hostage under the veil of land-use regulation in order to promote selfish economic goals," he said. "Consumers are going to be outraged to learn that city zoning laws might be used to prevent them from shopping where they can get the best value for their dollar."

Michael Gardner, senior store development manager for Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, said the ordinance specifically targets its Wal-Mart Supercenter, which combines a supermarket and discount retailer in one store.

"We try to take away the misconceptions about how we operate the stores," Gardner said, "and we are willing to work with the city to resolve issues."

The Los Angeles ordinance is similar to a controversial bill Gov. Gray Davis vetoed in September 1999. That legislation was aimed at preventing discount giants from expanding big-box operations, saying the measure was "anti-competitive and anti-consumer."

In rejecting the bill, Davis said land use and zoning matters should be left to local government decision-makers and not be preempted by the state without thoughtful deliberation.

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