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The coming of a Walmart is one of the trickiest issues an urban politician can encounter: There’s not a whole lot you can do to impact whether or not Walmart comes, or what they do when they arrive. All of your constituents want you to do something, but they’re split right down the middle on what that should be, with passions equally high on both sides.
That’s the situation in which Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser finds herself, much more so than her colleagues with jurisdiction over the other three proposed Walmarts (which fall in less densely-populated areas of Wards 5, 6, and 7).
The problem is imminent: Developer Foulger Pratt is expected to sign an agreement with Walmart very soon, and unless something unforeseen comes up during the large tract review process, there’s nothing else in the way. But many small businesses along Georgia Avenue are terrified about the prospect of a superstore opening up at the Curtis Chevrolet site, and labor groups could take revenge in 2012 if Bowser appears too supportive of Walmart’s ambitions. On the other hand, Bowser hears over and over again from residents that they need more shopping options.
At a meeting last night at Emory United Methodist Church, all opinions were on display. Some business leaders, including Yes! Organic Market’s Gary Cha, had apocalyptic predictions of job loss and business failure should Walmart be allowed to operate. Other business owners looked to the superstore as a lifeline, hoping that increased foot traffic might bring people past their doorsteps, or that they might even be able to sell their own goods inside Walmart itself. Meanwhile, ANC commissioners tried to tell businesspeople that many residents never shop on Georgia Avenue or Kennedy Street, and that they needed to make their stores more attractive and unique in order to survive.
Sitting on a low stage in the Church’s basement, Bowser tried some real talk.
“I don’t mean to offend anybody,” she said, “but we already have enough beer and wine licenses. Where can somebody go buy clothes, right now?” The room was silent. “Where? Nowhere?”
“I get your concern,” she continued, holding out her hands in an appeal. “But I need you to get my concern. I can’t go to my community and say, this is all you deserve. I can’t do that.”
Bowser also pointed out that the community had brought Walmart upon itself by refusing densification at key spots along Georgia Avenue, ignoring recommendations from the Great Streets program.
“We’ve got to do it at Georgia Avenue and Missouri, we’ve got to do it at Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch, we’ve got to do it at Walter Reed, and we’ve got to do it at Georgia and Eastern,” she said. “And then you have these nodes where different kinds of activity can happen. We started at Petworth, and it’s working.”
Bowser isn’t telling everybody what they want to hear, and she’s probably right. In an ideal world, something other than Walmart would have worked out in on the Curtis Chevrolet site—but that world was allowed to slip away, and outright resistance could waste valuable time and energy that should be spent helping businesses gear up for survival.
Photo via the Korean American Grocers Association Facebook page.