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Wal-Mart and Chinatown: Who speaks for the community?

August 13, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Protesters march through Chinatown on June 30 in opposition to Wal-Mart's proposal to put a grocery in the neighborhood.
Protesters march through Chinatown on June 30 in opposition to Wal-Mart's… (Joe Klamar / AFP/GettyImages )

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.)

Another factor here is organized labor's seething antipathy toward Wal-Mart. But setting that aside, isn't it possible that planners shouldn't have given their blessing to such a large commercial space in that part of Chinatown in the first place? Doesn't the fact that Wal-Mart's proposal complies with city rules demonstrate the inability of planners to foresee and guard against every possible development that could damage a neighborhood?

That's a valid argument. But it doesn't mean the city needs to change the rules whenever a developer or entrepreneur exposes a potential flaw in a neighborhood plan.

Ultimately, the character of a community is determined by the people who compose it. If the residents of Chinatown honestly don't want a Wal-Mart, it will either fail or survive on the support from shoppers outside the community. In either of those cases, it won't compete successfully with the grocers that Chinatown residents patronize.

Whenever a controversial development is up for debate, there's no shortage of people claiming to speak for the community. Whether they actually do, however, isn't clear. The proof is when the people express their wishes with their wallets.

Because of its economies of scale (and nonunionized workforce), Wal-Mart will sell its goods for less than other supermarkets may charge. At the same time, however, its regional supply chain means its wares won't be unique or localized. That could prove to be a huge disadvantage in a neighborhood whose residents are more interested in bok choi than burgers.

It's worth bearing in mind that the space Wal-Mart seeks to open its grocery in -- the ground floor of an apartment building at Cesar E. Chavez and Grand avenues -- has never been occupied. Is a big empty storefront more in keeping with the nature of the community than a chain store? Isn't the best way to answer that question to let Wal-Mart set up shop and see how residents respond?

ALSO:

The Paul Ryan choice

Newton: Culture clash in Chinatown

Circumcision: It was good enough for Jesus

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