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Editorial

L.A.'s unfair to Wal-Mart

The City Council is out of line in putting new hurdles in front of the retailer's planned Chinatown store.

March 23, 2012
  • Members of L.A. City Council will take up a proposal Friday to impose a temporary moratorium on retail development in Chinatown. That measure in theory would block any large chain store from locating there; in practice, it is aimed at just one: Wal-Mart.
Members of L.A. City Council will take up a proposal Friday to impose a temporary… (Los Angeles Times )

Many members of the Los Angeles City Council think poorly ofWal-Mart, and with some good reason. They fear the giant retailer's reputation for crowding small businesses out of neighborhoods, and they are sensitive to the charge that the company's commitment to holding down prices comes at the expense of salary and benefits for its nonunion workforce. Egged on by their supporters in organized labor, members of the council will take up a proposal Friday to impose a temporary moratorium on retail development in Chinatown. That measure in theory would block any large chain store from locating there; in practice, it is aimed at just one: Wal-Mart, which has proposed a 33,000-square-foot grocery. The council's move may be understandable, but the proposal is unwise and counterproductive.

Los Angeles' reputation as a place that is difficult to do business is all too justified. Its gross receipts tax discourages many companies from locating here. Its regulatory rules — to protect the environment or to mitigate traffic or to serve other laudable goals — make it more costly and complicated. But its biggest drawback may be its endemic uncertainty. Rather than presenting potential businesses with reliable rules and allowing those businesses to judge whether they can or will comply, every deal in the city is subject to negotiation. Sometimes that's necessary when a community confronts an unexpected threat to its character; more often, it offers opportunities for leverage. (Does anyone believe that the City Council would be balking if Apple had proposed a store for this site? Or that concessions are not the endgame here?)

So it is with Wal-Mart. The company scoped out a potential site and identified a parcel that already is zoned for the kind of store it wants to put in. It announced plans to build on property that has been vacant for decades, and in accordance with the site's intended use. It did not propose one of its superstores but rather a relatively modest grocery outlet. It required no special action from the city because its plans were in compliance with the property's existing zoning.

That should have been enough. Instead, Councilman Ed Reyes, joined by Councilman Eric Garcetti, proposed a temporary moratorium on the issuance of any demolition or building permits in Chinatown for any chain store until the city can study the implications of the proposed project. If the council approves the moratorium, Wal-Mart will be asked to produce studies and endure delay for a proposal that already meets the city's rules and objectives.

Some people don't want to work at Wal-Mart because of its labor practices. They shouldn't have to. Some don't like the way it treats its suppliers or the fact that its workers are not unionized. Those critics should feel free to shop elsewhere. But the government should not change the rules on this project when it already is underway. The council should reject Reyes' proposal.

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