Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

DC's proposed legislation on large retailers is misguided

Left: sign up sheet at the Walmart booth at the H Street Festival in September 2012.

See "DC Council panel hears testimony on 'living wage'" from the Post and "D.C. could force huge wage increase on city's big retailers" from the Examiner.

Obviously, opposition to this bill is why Walmart has been in full-time organizing mode since last summer, which I wrote about a couple times.  See "Wal-Mart is among 'Don't block D.C. Progress' backers" from the Post.

The legislation misguided because it focuses mostly on how the business treats its workers, and ignores the urban design and business district impact of large scale retailers on streetscape, urban design, commercial district revitalization, and small retailers.

That's because the legislation is being driven by labor interests--and I can't fault them for it--since typically large grocery chains like Safeway and Giant in the Washington region are unionized and chains like Walmart and Target (but not Costco) are not and this impacts prevailing wage rates and leads (generally) to the failure/consolidation of weaker supermarket companies when Walmart in particular enters a market.

Big box retail zoning ordinances, to my way of thinking, should be focused on the business and urban design impacts primarily, and less so the labor impact, although that does matter.

In the approval process for the coming Walmart store on Georgia Avenue, the DC Office of Planning declined to consider "economic impact" as a "neighborhood impact" within the context of the Large Tract Review regulation.

From "ANC4B Large Tract Review Report on Walmart, 5/2011":

The large tract review process is designed to ensure that extra-normal demands are not made of DC Government resources, including infrastructure, through the process of inter-agency review and
coordination. Specifically the process is designed:

• To minimize adverse environmental, traffic and neighborhood impacts;

• To avoid unnecessary public costs in terms of new services or facilities required of city agencies; and

• To carry out the policies of the District Elements of the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital. (Section 2300.2 of 10DCMR23)

Without considering the potential for negative economic impact (what in the California Environmental Quality Assessment process they call "urban decay") it becomes impossible to mitigate in advance potential negative effects.

Then what is the point of the Large Tract Review regulation anyway?

I wrote about this here: "Lessons from Walmart's foray into Washington, DC" and "Walmart: in the city vs. of the city."  From the foray piece:

What interests me most is what are the lessons, for planners, elected officials, and citizens?

1. Walmart isn't driven by ethics, the decisions they make are business-based. 

2. Walmart wants to be in the city, in "urban" markets, but they are agnostic about building and project form. If the site they want is what they want, they just want to be there, they won't push the developer to do an urban-appropriate or better project.

3. Communities are in position to get their clocks cleaned, unless they have the right ordinances in place before Walmart comes knocking, and has already lined up support behind closed doors long before it's reported in the media.

4. The Respect DC Coalition acts as if they lost, but they really won, sort of..., as Walmart negotiated a community benefits agreement in DC, just that Respect DC wasn't part of the negotiation.  

5.  A big lesson is that advocates should focus. If you don't, your opponents set the agenda. 

6.  Setting the agenda for negotiation is key and it should be focused on the long term best interest of the city and impacted neighborhoods, not anything else.  

a. What matters to me is the research that says for every job that Walmart creates, 1.5 jobs is lost.

Instead of monies paid out to charities, mitigation of the potential negative impact of Walmart on independent businesses and commercial districts should have been the foremost priority of any financial "contributions" by Walmart.

b. The other thing that matters to me is whether or not the stores will support urbanism and appropriate urban design.

But by focusing on jobs issues, and money for charities, substantive urban-related issues end up getting completely ignored.
I wrote about similarly misguided regulatory efforts on "big box" regulation in Montgomery County Maryland here: "What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about."

The proposed DC legislation has all of the same defects as the Montgomery County proposal.

This might also be useful, "If you don't know urban political theory, it's likely that you don't understand local land use: St. Louis: DC; etc."

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