Jewish Journal


March 22, 2012

A Not So Hidden Agenda



A game changer that the City Council didn’t stop, it is just one block from where the new mini Wal-Mart would be. There are three of these behemoths with empty retail on the ground floor; so much for concern about "neighborhood character."

Goldman Sachs may have referred in their internal emails to their clients as “muppets”, but were we to see the internal emails of members of the Los Angeles City Council undoubtedly they would refer to their constituents as “fools.”

How else to explain the obvious contempt that members of the Los Angeles City Council have for the citizens of LA and our intelligence?

Today’s LA Times
reports that the City Council is considering an ordinance that would block Wal-Mart from opening a 33,000 square foot “Neighborhood Market” at the corner of Cesar Chavez (Sunset) and Grand Avenue. According to the Times, Councilman Ed Reyes and Councilman Eric Garcetti have introduced a bill that would deny building permits to “formula retail” stores—-those that have standardized facades, color schemes, décor, employee uniforms and merchandise.

The proffered reason for the Council’s sudden concern about décor, design and uniforms is to “protect the character of Chinatown” and the small businesses there. The Times reports that the bill is on an expedited schedule so that it can deny Wal-Mart the building permits it needs to proceed with remodeling the presently empty retail space on the bottom floor of a non-descript mixed use apartment building.

The reality, as anyone who has a glimmer of knowledge of LA politics knows, is that Reyes and Garcetti are doing the bidding of labor unions who have made Wal-Mart their target of choice and the seeming incarnation of all that is evil in American society. It’s a non-union chain so labor wants to pull every string it can to prevent it from opening stores in LA until it unionizes.  Clearly Council members Reyes and Garcetti have had their strings pulled and have responded slavishly.

The notion that limiting Wal-Mart from moving into an empty retail space at Cesar Chavez and Grand is benefiting Chinatown is absurd. Drive by that corner the “small businesses” being protected there are a Burger King (which, by the way, has a standardized façade, color scheme, décor and employee uniforms), the massive LA Unified’s Arts High School, an apartment house set back from the street and the mixed use building where the Wal-Mart planned to move. There is one full service market serving a thirty block radius from that corner.

The reality is that Reyes and Garcetti are assuming that few folks will venture to the corner of Cesar Chavez and Grand and see what a ridiculous notion it is that small businesses are being protected or that the “character of Chinatown” is being preserved. Most people’s notion of Chinatown is blocks away. Additionally, they assume that most of their supporters view Wal-Mart with such disdain that abrogating normal processes to punish Wal-Mart is acceptable.

One only has to travel one block west to the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Figueroa Streets to observe monstrously over-sized, gaudy, Italianate apartment houses that occupy three of the four corners—-buildings that clearly didn’t bother the City Council and which do, in fact, alter the “character” of the neighborhood.

The councilmen’s move is also distressing because it will cavalierly put in jeopardy dozens of jobs that the city desperately needs. Wal-Mart has 28 stores in LA County employing 12,000 people (an average of 428 employees/store). This store would be about a fifth the size of a normal Wal-Mart, so it might employ about a fifth of the number in a normal store, about 85 folks (Wal-Marts provide health care coverage to employees who work at least 24 hours/week). For a city that is only now returning to 2004 levels of employment, those are 85 jobs we need that neither the councilmen nor the unions should be killing.

To disabuse anyone of the notion that Wal-Mart is the incarnation of evil that deserves the special animus of the City Council, read the op/ed written last year in the Times by Michael Kinsley, former editor of The New Republic and former editorial page editor of the LA Times—hardly a right wing, anti-union propagandist: 

There are those whose objections to Wal-Mart are more aesthetic than economic: the barn-like quality of the stores, the impact of a Wal-Mart on old downtowns, even the whole culture of consumption that some people find distasteful. They’re welcome to those views as long as they acknowledge that higher prices at non-Wal-Mart stores are bad for consumers — especially poor consumers.

Wal-Mart’s employees seem as cheerful as those at Target or Costco. But perhaps the company has hypnotized them — or possibly me — in some sort of Stepford wives scenario.

Big companies make fat targets, but a more deserving target might be small companies. Instead, we have the ever-inflating myth of small business. Small businesses come and go, creating and eliminating jobs along the way. Yes, they are an important part of the economy, and often they come with inspiring tales of hard-working immigrants and so on. But they’re in it to make a profit, just like Wal-Mart. And I doubt that many offer healthcare to people working less than 24 hours a week.

We aren’t Muppets and we aren’t idiots and our electeds ought not treat us as such. If they have a problem with Wal-Mart because their union supporters do—admit it. If those concerns trump new jobs and enlivening a neighborhood that needs retail be honest about it. Don’t hide behind a façade of concern that is transparently dishonest.


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