Posted by: cantmisssd | December 3, 2010

What the Walmart fight means

In an often raucous hearing yesterday, the City Council voted 503 to override a mayoral veto and institute new requirements for giant big-box superstores in the city. Requirements that any store more than 90,000 square feet not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood around it are relatively benign, but WalMart fought against it tooth and nail, including tv ads- presumably because they know, as many of the rest of us do, that it’s impossible for a store that size NOT to have an adverse impact on its community.

The story of the superstore impact has been told time and time again. In every case, small businesses go under, wages decrease, unemployment increases. More people end up receiving public aid, fewer people can afford health care. Land value drops, and it’s harder for new businesses to move in or local residents to start new businesses. It’s a disaster every single time, and the most telling evidence in support of that is that WalMart doesn’t even try to present evidence to dispute it. It’s a victory to have even this small restraint on giant corporations trying to pillage our struggling neighborhood economies, but it also speaks to the same larger themes that persist in San Diego.

Jay Porter does a good job introducing the point that WalMart and others like it have explicitly designed a profit structure reliant on driving down the quality of every good and service in our lives. There’s really no dispute about that, even among many of those who backed the idea of a WalMart superstore in San Diego. Which is how it continues to succeed- it pops up wherever and whenever people are struggling, and hopes that individual desperation will trump the larger picture. It’s an effective model, and understandably so. In this case it ran directly down the social faultlines that run through San Diego and the heart of city hall.

There’s a not-accidental poetry that this WalMart issue is timed with debate over the CCDC cap, redevelopment proposals for the Convention Center, and closing the city’s budget gap. The overlaying issues is how development focus will be spread throughout the city equitably, and how to change the discussion about government towards how to government as well as possible.

Are the initial sketches of the Convention Center expansion rather questionable financially? Um… yes. But just as important, even if that investment broke even, would it be the best use of those resources? Given the desperation expressed by so many in District 4’s struggling neighborhoods, one certainly can’t say ‘yes’ out of hand.

Was there anything fundamentally wrong with the process of lifting the CCDC cap? Maybe, maybe not. But is that the best target for redevelopment even if everything is done within the rules? Driving down Commercial Street a few blocks beyond CCDC would suggest perhaps not.

Because of the limitations of time and resources, often long-term plans and projects are judged based on whether or not they can be justified relative to themselves. That is, can the supporters convince enough people that the project will at least be not a big enough problem to fight about. The debate that often doesn’t happen in a meaningful way, particularly by the time these plans reach top levels and go public, is whether the resources in question are being optimized.

It’s easy to say that investing forever in downtown creates a business magnet that generates tax revenue in a cycle that feeds on itself into infinity. But is that a more meaningful boost to the city’s bottom line or the general population outside of downtown than serious investment in less-sexy projects to break struggling communities out of the cycle of poverty?

Detroit is wrestling with some of the same challenges we see in District 4, ground zero for the big-box fight yesterday. With chain grocery stores uninterested in operating within the city, the local government has been exploring innovative ways to support the locally-owned small grocers. It “is trying to provide additional assistance, such as by helping grocers find financing, secure the zoning they need, and organize focus groups to help fine-tune their product mix.” And in the process, there’s been a re-investment in community connections and pride of ownership that, if replicated, could help significantly to change the face of struggling neighborhoods.

That model is harder though, and hasn’t exactly been a priority in San Diego planning. But since food is such an important piece of everyone’s life, the article reminds that grocers have an opportunity to be not just a community anchor of necessity, but to be a reflection of the community’s character by embracing specialty foods and adapting to the shopping needs and habits of the local residents. Big chain supermarkets don’t have that ability, and WalMart sure as hell doesn’t have that ability. But meaningful engagement to build up locally-owned businesses with connections to the community, businesses that reinforce neighborhood pride, support the unique aspects of the community, and build character can help fill that gap with a long-term foundation instead of box-box superstores that only further erode things.

It’s easy for big money downtown developers to get the ear of lawmakers, and difficult to organize people- especially people who are busy struggling to get by. But it’s vital to talk more about what’s best and less about what we can put up with.

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