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In Panorama City, a Wal-Mart's not so unwelcome

A store with groceries and a pharmacy will fill a vacant storefront in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Locals hope it will bring foot traffic to a hard-hit shopping center.

April 30, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Carlos Gomez, who works at a burrito stand across the street from the incoming Wal-Mart market in Panorama City, said the new store was "going to make a bunch of people happy."
Carlos Gomez, who works at a burrito stand across the street from the incoming… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Word that Wal-Mart is opening a Neighborhood Market in Panorama City is getting a markedly different reception than the criticism heaped on a similar grocery-only store that the retailing giant plans to open in downtown Los Angeles.

Residents of the northeast San Fernando Valley have watched as the recession turned once-thriving commercial hubs into vacant storefronts. The Vannord Center, a 90,000-square-foot-center at the corner of busy Van Nuys Boulevard and Nordhoff Street, has been hit particularly hard with more than half of its 30 tenants closing their doors.

So any concerns that a Wal-Mart store might push out mom-and-pop shops, or threaten union jobs, is being outweighed by the benefits that the national retailer will bring to the struggling center, said manager Suzanne Ponder. Valley Food Warehouse, which anchored the mall, closed five years ago and the building has been vacant.

"It's a blessing," Ponder said as plumbing and electrical workers in hard hats installed service lines inside the 31,000-square-foot building, stripped back to its frame. "It's just what we needed."

Others are also enthused.

Enriqueta Mendoza, 41, poked her head into the store while pushing her baby in a stroller. She has six children at home, Mendoza said, and it's been hard to find fresh vegetables, fruit and milk since a small ethnic grocer across the street closed its doors.

The closest supermarkets are more than a mile away and she usually walks to buy groceries, she said. "Muy buena,'' she said with a smile.

Scheduled for a fall opening, the Panorama City location will be the retailer's seventh store in Los Angeles. Another Wal-Mart a mile south of the Vannord Center sells discount merchandise but has limited groceries.

The Neighborhood Market format features fresh produce, meat and dairy products and a pharmacy in a building about one-fifth the size of a regular Wal-Mart, said Steven Restivo, a spokesman for the nation's largest retailer. The store is intended to complement the many ethnic grocery stores in the area, he said.

"We've become more flexible in our approach to communities. We still prefer to do a regular store, but in densely populated areas we want to make sure the mix fits the area," he said.

Wal-Mart announced a month ago that it planned to open a 33,000-square-foot grocery store at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues in Chinatown. The proposal was quickly denounced by labor unions and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an advocacy group that has taken issue with Wal-Mart's low-end wage scale and nonunion workforce.

The City Council passed an ordinance temporarily banning large chain stores from opening in the neighborhood, but the vote came a day after Wal-Mart had obtained permits to proceed.

Allison Mannos, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group, said the organization had heard another store was in the works but was focusing its efforts for now on stopping the Chinatown store.

"We are still researching it and talking to community allies about what approach, if any, we're going to take," she said.

Wal-Mart says the average wage for its full-time clerks is $12.74 an hour. Mannos said the figure is misleading because many workers are part-time and don't earn benefits. The average union rate for full-time grocery clerks is $15 an hour, she said.

Dianabel Gonzalez, chairwoman of the Panorama City Neighborhood Council, called the new store a much-needed boost for an ailing commercial corner. She and her mother used to walk to Valley Food Warehouse every day when she was a child, Gonzalez said. Her mother, who still lives within a block, was sad to see it close.

"I pass that corner all the time and see all those empty storefronts,'' she said. "It told me that something was not right in our area. Wal-Mart will bring in that foot traffic and help those stores too."

Across the street at a busy burrito stand, fry cook Carlos Gomez predicted the store would be a hit.

"That's going to make a bunch of people happy,'' he said. "People just stopped going over there because it was starting to look scary."

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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