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Each of the four sites slated to receive Walmarts has a long and convoluted history—which makes sense, considering the retailer was able to swoop in and grab them after other plans fell through. The 801 New Jersey Avenue location, however, is more interesting than most, involving what amounts to a two-decade-old community benefits agreement with a heretofore little-known community coalition.
Two decades ago, the Bennett Group—owned by LuAnn Bennett, wife of Virginia Rep. Jim Moran—planned to develop 800 North Capitol Street with the District government. In the wake of Mayor Marion Barry’s arrest in 1990, the city dropped many of its development agreements, and the Bennett Group sued. As part of the settlement, they received the rights to a parcel at New Jersey and H Street NW that had sat empty since houses were demolished there in the 1970s. Now, heavy fees are starting to kick in as the lease ages.
The next layer of complication: In order to obtain a zoning variance from the city, the Bennett Group needed to give something back to the immediate area. To administer that exchange, the heads of local churches, schools, and community organizations formed a body called Joshua Group, which would receive $2 million for an education foundation as soon as the development broke ground, as well as 15 percent of the Bennett Group’s profits.
The Joshua Group hasn’t been very active lately, because it hasn’t had any money. But at a community meeting last night on the Walmart development at St. Aloysius Church on Eye Street NW, the Bennett Group said the organization has been an integral part of the design process, and its leaders defended the project to a skeptical audience.
“From my perspective, they have really rolled up their sleeves and shown us that they are interested in community concerns,” said Second Baptist Church pastor James Terrell, citing the money for local education needs as well as amenities that the new Walmart would bring.
Paul McElligott, executive director of the Perry School Community Services Center, spoke of the dire need for employment—his organization has in previous years placed around 25 people in jobs per month, but only averaged seven in 2010. “All things considered, this project is a benefit,” he said.
Yvonne Williams, chair of the Board of Trustees for Bible Way Church—which has built hundreds of low-income apartments right across the street from the proposed Walmart, and is at work on 60 more—brought 50 signatures in favor of the project from local residents, and says they desperately need more affordable groceries than what they can get in CityVista Safeway and NoMa Harris Teeter (Bible Way had tried to run a supermarket itself years ago, and failed. Now, according to St. Aloysius’ Father Thomas Clifford, a local non-profit runs buses for seniors to a Walmart out in Maryland.)
“We’ve been praying for food in our neighborhood for 40 years,” Williams said. “We need Walmart here to meet the needs of our residents.”
Walmart itself has talked about being willing to draw up benefit packages with each of the four neighborhoods where it plans to locate—but has stated outright that it would refuse to sign one, according to Councilmember Michael Brown. And with the pillars of the community in Ward 6 already satisfied with what they’re getting from the Bennett Group, they’re not terribly eager to agitate for more.
To add on to all that, Councilmember Tommy Wells seems pretty bullish on the project as well. In his first time speaking publicly on the matter, Wells pleaded with the audience to consider the overall quality of the development, which will involve ground-floor bays for independent retail, put Walmart on the second and third floors, mirror the architecture of the Government Printing Office across the street, and have 315 units of non-luxury housing on top. It’s a lot better than the previously-expected office development, he pointed out, where most workers would probably have been non-D.C. residents.
“But for Walmart, we’d all be saying, this looks like a great project,” Wells said. As far as the anchor tenant, he’s “challenged” the company to work with the University of the District of Columbia to establish a training program similar to the one they run in Bentonville, which could connect D.C. residents to retail management jobs around the city. Plus, he said that it’s not necessarily a small business killer, citing the example of Fragers Hardware expanding after Home Depot opened not too far away.
And with Whole Foods asking for an $8 million tax abatement on the other end of New Jersey Avenue, the fact that Walmart has asked nothing from the city to bring a 40,000 square foot grocery store is a pretty attractive selling point as well.
“Y’all seen what a box of Wheaties costs at Whole Foods?” Wells asked.