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Foes, backers of Chinatown Wal-Mart face off again

Activists urge an L.A. council panel to move forward with a ban on large national chain stores in the historic district. Business backers chide the city for targeting a retailer unions don't like.

August 14, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Wal-Mart wants to open a 33,000-square-foot grocery store on the ground floor of this apartment building on the edge of Chinatown. The retail space has been vacant for years.
Wal-Mart wants to open a 33,000-square-foot grocery store on the ground… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Retail giant Wal-Mart's plan to bring a grocery store to Chinatown got another testy airing Tuesday as speakers on both sides of the issue squared off in a crowded hearing room at Los Angeles City Hall.

Community activists, some wearing red T-shirts, urged the City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee to move forward with a one-year ban on large national chain stores in the historic district. The halt would give the Chinatown community and city leaders time to consider making the ban permanent, speakers told committee members.

"Are we going to wait until all the Home Depots and Wal-Marts move in and change everything?" said King Chung, 63, whose mother had a shop in Chinatown for years. "Of course not. We want it now, not when things are a lot worse."

Speakers from business groups chided the city for targeting a retailer that is unpopular with unions. Labor leaders have long complained that the discounter pays low wages and opposes employee efforts to organize.

Both sides have said the current fight was instigated by Wal-Mart's March announcement that it planned to open a 33,000-square-foot grocery store in a retail space that has been vacant for years.

Doug Arseneault of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. said the ban would be "telling large retailers that Los Angeles is not interested, that our city is closed for business." Yeghig Keshishian, spokesman for the Central City Assn., called it a "dangerous precedent."

After listening to public comments, Councilman Ed Reyes, who chairs the committee, put off calling for a decision until next week. He didn't explain why, but a deputy said more time is needed to insert "technical" language into the proposed ordinance.

The city has pursued a ban on chain stores larger than 20,000 square feet in Chinatown since late March. The motion by Reyes, who represents the neighborhood, came a day after Wal-Mart obtained city permission to build the new store at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues.

Council approval wasn't needed because the space was already zoned for a grocery store.

Labor and community members opposed to the Wal-Mart store appeared to outnumber business representatives at Tuesday's hearing.

"The jobs aren't that great at Wal-Mart," said Sissy Trinh of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance. She told committee members that the retailer's arrival could put 30 bakeries, pharmacies and mom-and-pop grocers at risk. "Is this really going to help Chinatown?"

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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