Wal-Mart's proposed grocery store on the edge of Chinatown has provoked spirited opposition from people who argue that a Wal-Mart outlet -- or any national chain's presence, regardless of the parent -- would violate the character of the neighborhood.
Which raises the question: Who determines the character of a neighborhood, and how?
One answer is that the residents do, organically. But government also shapes neighborhoods through the rules it sets for lot sizes, density, architectural standards and commercial uses. By adopting neighborhood plans, zoning regulations and building codes, government lays out a blueprint for occupants, developers and businesspeople to follow. And because those plans and regulations are adopted through public processes with community input, they supposedly reflect the will of the community as interpreted by their elected representatives. (Feel free to insert your snarky comment here about who those folks actually represent.)
In this case, Wal-Mart has applied for permits to build a grocery story in a space intended for just that purpose. But the company's opponents argue that it's not enough for Wal-Mart to comply with the rules set by government. They want the city to change the rules because, in their view, Wal-Mart doesn't belong in Chinatown.
The Times decried this case-by-case approach to permitting in an editorial published online Sunday, saying it was emblematic of the city's unreliable and antagonistic approach toward business. "The way this city works, a developer who proposes to do what the city asks instead is often subject to review, delay and obstruction -- or, conversely, one who befriends a council member is given favored treatment," the editorial board intoned. (The editorial was included in the early edition of Sunday's paper but was pulled to make room for a piece on GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney choosing Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate. The Times will reprint its Wal-Mart editorial in Tuesday's paper.)