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L.A. council votes too late to block Chinatown Wal-Mart project

The council votes to draft a law temporarily banning large chain stores from opening in the neighborhood. But the firm had obtained permits a day earlier.

March 24, 2012|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Wal-Mart has secured permits to open a grocery store on the ground floor of this apartment building at Grand and Cesar Chavez avenues.
Wal-Mart has secured permits to open a grocery store on the ground floor… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Discount retail giantWal-Martoutwitted Los Angeles City Council members who sought to slow the company's expansion into Chinatown, securing permits for its store on the eve of a crucial vote on the topic.

The council voted 13 to 0 on Friday to draft a law temporarily banning large chain stores from opening in the neighborhood. But minutes before that vote, the top official at the Department of Building and Safety revealed that a day earlier Wal-Mart had obtained permits needed to renovate its vacant commercial space.

"This ordinance would not have any immediate impact on this project," department general manager Robert "Bud" Ovrom told the council.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who proposed the moratorium, said he was disappointed by Ovrom's news. He said he had hoped the temporary ban would help him protect the neighborhood's character and address traffic generated by Wal-Mart.

"I am not anti-business. I am pro-business. But these are fundamental issues," Reyes told his colleagues.

Backers of Reyes' motion had hoped to put it in place before Wal-Mart received its final permits, which have been in the works for months. Although Reyes' plan originally applied to nearly all new chain stores in Chinatown, he amended it Friday to ban chain stores larger than 20,000 square feet.

Wal-Mart announced a month ago that it planned to open a 33,000-square-foot grocery store at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues, on the ground floor of an existing apartment building. 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.

James Elmendorf, the alliance's deputy director, said he was disturbed that the company obtained its permits a day before the vote. He said Wal-Mart opponents would file an appeal of the company's construction permits with city officials within 10 days.

"They've got to review the permits to determine if any errors were made," he said.

The council passed an ordinance eight years ago making it difficult for Wal-Mart to open one of its so-called "superstores," those that are larger than 100,000 square feet and include groceries. The Chinatown market did not need council approval since it is going into an existing retail space.

The project has drawn sharply different reactions from the region's political leaders. U.S. Rep. Judy Chu and her husband, Assemblyman Mike Eng — both Chinese Americans from Monterey Park — spoke out against Wal-Mart and in favor of Reyes' moratorium. Both said Wal-Mart would devastate Chinatown's small businesses, such as bakeries and pharmacies.

"It has the ability to demand rock-bottom prices and to drive all other competitors away," Chu said.

Rosemead Mayor Steven Ly defended the chain, saying Wal-Mart brought his community a windfall of tax revenue. And county Supervisor Gloria Molina said before the vote — and before the revelation about Wal-Mart's permits — that Reyes' proposal would give the council a "black eye" if approved.

"It's very aggressive. It's very anti-business, and it's unfair to Wal-Mart as well, which showed that it's willing to come into the inner city," she said. "That [commercial space] has been totally empty since the day it was built."

A spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa refused to say whether his boss supports the proposed Wal-Mart grocery. Instead, he issued a more general statement saying the mayor supports "bringing fresh and healthy grocery options to all of Los Angeles."

Business groups had complained that Reyes' proposal would send a message that the city is willing to block a business even after it has followed the city's rules.

Councilman Paul Krekorian said no such message would be sent since Wal-Mart now has its permits.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo issued a statement Friday saying the company would continue to engage residents about the benefits of its new store.

"Now that our Walmart Neighborhood Market has received all necessary approvals, we look forward to serving downtown customers soon," he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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