In Great Wal-Mart Debate, Will City Council Question Big-Box Development?

Here comes Wal-Mart.

The retail giant, the nation’s largest employer, has been eyeing the untapped New York City market for years. So far, opposition to Wal-Mart’s notorious labor record has kept the chain outside city limits, but a new push to establish a beachhead in the five boroughs is now underway.

The likeliest site for a Wal-Mart in New York City, East New York's Gateway Center, is a collection of big-box stores and free parking with its own highway off-ramp. Image: Google Maps.
The likeliest site for a Wal-Mart in New York City, East New York's Gateway Center, is a collection of big-box stores and free parking with its own highway off-ramp. Image: ##,-95.677068&sspn=32.66491,78.486328&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Brooklyn,+Kings,+New+York&ll=40.651667,-73.869495&spn=0.007635,0.019162&t=h&z=16##Google Maps.##

The likeliest site for the city’s first Wal-Mart, according to Crain’s columnist Greg David, is at the Gateway Center in East New York. The shopping center’s website brags that it’s “one of the largest suburban-style retail developments” and touts its sea of free surface parking. In other words, a Wal-Mart on that site would stick to the most traditional big-box design, straight out of Bentonville.

Bringing Wal-Mart to New York City doesn’t have to be that way, though. A similar lobbying blitz is underway in Washington, D.C., where Wal-Mart is attempting to open four stores. Unlike in New York, however, Wal-Mart is attempting to win support by adapting its stores to the urban environment. For one of the stores, they propose a five-story building with smaller retail along one side of the block and apartments above the stores. “It may be the most well-executed new urban big box department store in America,” said Greater Greater Washington.

The executives in charge of expanding Wal-Mart into D.C. clearly believe that good design is the key to winning the support of that city’s decision-makers. Here in New York, though, no such pitch is underway.

This plan for a Washington, D.C. Wal-Mart integrates the store into the urban environment. But is a Wal-Mart worth integrating? Image: Greater Greater Washington.
This plan for a Washington, D.C. Wal-Mart integrates the store into the urban environment. But is a Wal-Mart worth integrating? Image: ## Greater Washington.##

Then again, would you expect there to be? It’s hard to imagine that when the City Council holds its first hearing on Wal-Mart on February 3, they’ll be concerned with its car-centric, traffic-inducing design. After all, this is the same City Council that responded to merchant opposition to the Flushing Commons development by throwing in $3 million to offer free and discounted parking at that project’s 1,600-space garage.

Of course, a D.C.-style design wouldn’t change the economic arguments against Wal-Mart.

In fact, a new report by Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio and the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development [PDF] argues that smaller Wal-Marts might make the situation worse by spreading the negative effects of the store to more neighborhoods. Write the authors:

The overwhelming weight of the independent research on the impact of Wal-Mart stores on local and national economies – including jobs, taxes, wages, benefits, manufacturing and existing retail businesses – shows that Wal-Mart depresses area wages and labor benefits contributing to the current decline of good middle class jobs, pushes out more retail jobs than it creates, and results in more retail vacancies. There is no indication that smaller “urban” Wal-Mart stores scattered throughout a dense city in any way diminish these negative trends. Rather, such developments may actually result in more widespread economic disruption.

The report goes on to catalog the research supporting their argument that Wal-Mart would be a disaster for workers and small businesses. If Wal-Marts wipe out smaller retailers, that would also be quite a disaster for the city’s pedestrian environment.

We’re hoping, though hardly holding our breath, that at February’s hearing the Council looks not only at what Wal-Mart means for the city’s economy, but what big box development means for the city more broadly. Whether we’re talking about a Wal-Mart, a Costco, or another brand of big box, what does this kind of building mean for traffic, the environment, or street safety? What questions would you like to see the Council address during its Wal-Mart hearing?

  • If you need to buy something from Walmart, order it off the website. There’s no need to allow the urban equivalent of a giant tumor on our streetscape.

  • Christopher Stephens

    That there is mounting opposition to opening a WalMart at Gateway Center, which is already established and zoned for big box retail, shows that the opponents’ ire has everything to do with the company and nothing to do with planning, sustainability or economics.

    I am reminded of the same debate that raged when K-Mart opened its first store in Manhattan at Astor Place. The East Village was doomed! cried the usual crowd. Finally, someone pointed out that the store was taking over the old Wannamaker’s building, and an article decrying to advent of the department store was found from when Wannamaker’s first opened over 100 years ago. The East Village survived Wannamakers, and it appears to have survived K-Mart, too. New York can absorb Wal-Mart, too, and the world will not end.

    Now I’m off to the East Harlem Target and Costco to get some groceries.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Regardless of the debate over this, I will add that the current shopping center there has an amazingly nice greenway path and park fields that I love to ride on and have seen children using quite a bit in the summer.

    IF Wal-Mart eventually becomes a reality we should fight for some true bike/ped/transit accessibility as it appears the site for Whole Foods in Brooklyn has finally relented to:

  • drosejr

    I have to say that while suburban-style big-box malls aren’t the best fit for NYC, this city cries out for the competition that Wal-Mart would bring on the price front. Wal-Mart doesn’t charge low prices only because they are underpaying for labor (a fact that hasn’t stopped Target from doing the same thing in the city, most likely), but because they can buy in bulk and get the best prices for goods. Those are then passed on to you, the customer, who then doesn’t have to go to Food Emporium, Gristede’s or the corner bodega and pay an arm and a leg for groceries.

    Yes, NYC is an expensive place to do business, but I would just call your attention to John Catsimitidis and his Red Apple Group (Gristede’s) who manages to make quite a bit of money while running scuzzy stores and charging high prices for food. These stores could stomach lower prices and still make a profit while providing good jobs for their employees. Many other people will prefer to save some money and shop at Wal-Mart instead. It would be nice to have some of those jobs – and tax dollars – in the city as opposed to Westchester and Nassau. I may not have a car to drive to Wal-Mart, but if their presence can keep the lid on grocery-store prices in the city than that benefits us all.

  • Christopher Stephens

    Not disagreeing with any of the above, but I would like to amplify on drosejr’s initial comment “while suburban-style big-box malls aren’t the best fit for NYC…” As the aerial photo in the post reminds us, not all of the five boroughs look like Manhattan. Most places in the city aren’t right for big box retail, but there are plenty that are. There are many areas that aren’t right for the high-density, walkable neighborhoods that so many on this blog aspire to. The trick is to get the right kind of uses in the right locations. Not everywhere should be Park Slope. Diversity is good, right?

  • rhubarbpie

    The Council isn’t the only problem here. Where’s the administration? Kowtowing to big business as usual, right?

  • Geck

    Big boxes Wal-marts on highway interchanges bleed the life out of smaller community shopping areas that give our neighborhood character and a sense of community, be they in Middle America or outer Brooklyn. That is something that livable streets advocates should oppose. If Wal-marts must come, they should be integrated into the existing retail fabric, not set-up on highway interchanges outside them.

  • There are many areas that aren’t right for the high-density, walkable neighborhoods that so many on this blog aspire to. The trick is to get the right kind of uses in the right locations. Not everywhere should be Park Slope. Diversity is good, right?

    Supporting diversity doesn’t mean accepting any form of neighborhood. There are plenty of ways to configure a shopping district, and big-box stores with huge parking lots are a disaster in any neighborhood.

    It’s possible to want East New York to be walkable and sustainable without turning it into a carbon copy of Park Slope. We’ve got a diversity of models, including Astoria, Flushing, Hoboken and Sugar Hill. The tremendous waste of resources and pollution generated in these car-oriented sprawlvilles are a huge drag on the city’s treasury and a huge blight on its environment, to say nothing of the carnage. These neighborhoods also send anti-pedestrian, anti-transit car boosters like Lew Fidler and Charles Barron to the City Council.

  • vnm

    So the Gateway Center in East New York is different from the Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market, and from the Gateway Center on East 125th Street? Developers need to start coming up with new names for these retail complexes.

  • pd130

    Or maybe time to ask what the developers think their centers are a “gateway” to?

  • I think the original “Gateway,” in Brooklyn, refers to Gateway National Recreation Area, which is just across the highway from the mall.

    As far as the job-killing effects of Wal-Mart on local businesses, my conveniently located grocery store not only sells the products at pretty competitive prices, but handles the logistics of getting them to me and storing the quantities I need. The thought of schlepping out to Costco in Yonkers for groceries in bulk is unappealing, and when I bring them home where would I put them? I don’t think Wal-Mart can do that for me.

  • I got a thought for all you NYC folk. Let Wal-Mart open a store in this location but only if it opens another store in a dense part of the city with no parking facilities at all. Then see which one makes more money.

    I too think that small stores can survive a Wal-Mart in NYC for all the same reasons that Christopher Stephens pointed out.

    Also, to suggest that Wal-Mart shouldn’t be allowed to open up a store in a location even if they meet all the local zoning requirements is downright unAmerican. Just because they have the potential to out-compete their competition doesn’t mean they don’t have the legal right to open a store as long as they are within the local law.

    That said, I totally detest Wal-Mart due to their labor practices and purchasing practices that force their suppliers to outsource American jobs to China to cut costs (but at what price to America?) As such, I will never shop their even though their is one a short safe and easy, 5 minute bike ride away from me.

  • Christopher Stephens

    Geck: “That is something that livable streets advocates should oppose. If Wal-marts must come, they should be integrated into the existing retail fabric, not set-up on highway interchanges outside them.” My whole point is that putting a Wal-Mart at this location does exactly what you call for. This _is_ an existing retail location. This is exactly where we should be putting a Wal-Mart.

    Capn’t Transit: “The tremendous waste of resources and pollution generated in these car-oriented sprawlvilles are a huge drag on the city’s treasury and a huge blight on its environment, to say nothing of the carnage.” But these sprawlvilles already exist. And I would question whether this even qualifies as sprawl. Click on the Google Map link under the picture, and you can see that the surrounding neighborhoods don’t really resemble what I would consider sprawl. I’m not saying that Park Slope is the only model (please, God, no). But we need to acknowledge that there are people who live in the five boroughs who have cars and driveways and extra storage in their basements. For them, driving to Wal-Mart makes sense. You make it sound like they are evil for wanting to do that. If someone who lives in, say, Park Slope, wants to insist on more free street parking to be able to do the same, sure, that’s selfish, but that’s not what’s going on here.

    Jonathan: just because schlepping to a big box store doesn’t appeal to you doesn’t mean that no one should be able to do that. I don’t like golf, but I don’t think that golf courses should be banned. Some people _do_ have room to store the stereotypical 24 rolls of toilet paper. And while I’m not among them, I just got back from Target and Costco – took the M15 SBS both ways – and while I have a big Gristede’s a block from my house, I prefer the selection, service and, especially the prices I get from the big box stores.

    I think a lot of the arguments people make are more appropriate for new development and suburban sprawl, and I’m not disagreeing with all of them. However, it’s not a good idea to apply those arguments blindly to neighborhoods in New York that are already developed. Are you going to make people tear down their single family houses in Howard Beach because denser development makes for more liveable streets? That’s just silly.

  • Christopher, I’ve been to those neighborhoods. I don’t need Google Maps to tell me what they’re like. I don’t think the people there are evil for wanting to drive to Wal-Mart, but I do think they made the choices to live there and drive to big box stores based on unsustainable government subsidies and an unattainable fantasy of what counts for prosperity.

    The car-based lifestyle of Howard Beach will end soon enough. Once that happens, many of the single-family houses and their garages will be torn down. I don’t need to do anything: it cannot be sustained. The question is simply whether we want it to happen sooner, when we have the resources to build some nice mixed-use multi-family buildings that will integrate with the remaining single-family houses to form a walkable community, or whether we want to waste all those resources propping it up until the last moment, when we will not be able to build anything, and will simply have to abandon the houses to the bay.

  • Christopher, agreed that anyone can patronize big-box stores, and excited to hear that you were able to get to the Costco/Target on public transit. Also it’s nice to hear that you prefer the service at those stores to the local stores; my experience is that the big-box stores have a ratio of about three or four clueless employees to every clued-in one, so that it takes longer to find what I’m looking for.

    Still in all, adding in an hour’s trip back and forth to the store, and the $4.50 it costs in bus fare, I’d have to spend more than $250 per visit in order to make 10% lower prices worthwhile. Or to put it another way, I’m happy to spend an extra 11% on my shopping for the convenience of being able to do it around the corner. And that doesn’t include the cost of the room used to store those extra groceries. My spouse and I don’t spend more than $250 a month at the grocery store, and the prospect of eating the same food all month isn’t very appealing to us. Your mileage may vary, and I’m glad it does!

    Cap’n Transit, I like the pith and brevity of your first paragraph in no. 14 very much.

  • Thanks, Jonathan!

    I’ve lived in Park Slope, and I love its style. But I’d be happy if East New York looked more like West New York.

  • Christopher Stephens

    Jonathan – my mileage does indeed vary (if I buy a leg of lamb, the cost difference on that item alone would allow me to take a car service there and back and still be ahead financially). But my point is not just “if you don’t like it, don’t shop there.” There are forces on the City Council that want to prevent anyone from shopping at a WalMart within city limits, just because they don’t like the company, and I think that kind of behavior is shameful. Changing the law to prevent a specific company from engaging in otherwise lawful activity is a nasty, third-world way to operate.

  • TrulyLivable

    Some of those who’ve posted here really don’t care about the damage Walmart can do to jobs and true “livability” in this city–the ability for the average person to find a decent vocation and support his/herself. That gives a bad name to livable design/planning advocates everywhere.

  • Christopher Stephens

    I don’t think that existence of big box stores has been shown to kill jobs in NYC. I remember that when Pathmark wanted to open up in Harlem, the local bodega owners lobbied against it, but a decade (or more?) since, there are still plenty of bodegas, and people in the neighborhood have access to cheaper (and fresher) food. Also, see the example of K-Mart in the East Village, above. In NYC (I can’t speak for outside the city), the evidence of small shop owners closing their doors tends to be, at best, anecdotal.

    The ability to support oneself in a decent vocation is dependent not only on the ability to earn a living but also on the ability to access groceries, clothing, etc. that are affordable. New York City residents already spend over $100 million at the WalMart in Valley Stream each year. Having some of those jobs (not to mention the tax revenue) on this side of the border can only help working New Yorkers.

  • Joe R.

    Walmart is bad for the simple reason its business model is huge stores and huge parking lots which promote sprawl-the very last thing you need anywhere, let alone in New York City. And Walmart will probably fail miserably anyway here if it follows the same model as it does in Middle America. We already have stores where we can get electronics, clothing, other consumer goods fairly cheaply. And most NYers get their food at grocery chains. Rarely do they shop for both types of items at the same time. Lots of luck then trying to combine the two, as Walmart does. I remember when the former local KMart here ( 188th Street and Horace Harding ) did that. When they first opened they were a great store. Then they decided to devote shelf space selling the same kinds of food items you could buy at Pathmark or Associated or Waldbaums. They closed not long after that.

    For a great example of how to do things right in a big city, look at the new Target in the Skyview Center in Flushing. The store is huge but it doesn’t promote sprawl. There are stores below it, and apartments above it. There is indeed also a parking garage in the same complex ( which incidentally also has a BJs Wholesale and a Best Buy ), but it’s a multi-story design. The Target has both a street entrance and a parking lot entrance. This is the type of development we need a lot more of-integrated shopping, housing, and parking in huge, multistory complexes, making efficient use of limited space. What we don’t need is to waste acres for a single story 500,000 square foot store, and then twice that for a parking lot. Go away, Walmart, unless you plan to adjust your business model to fit NYC. This isn’t anytown, middle USA.

  • Christopher Stephens

    Joe – You are incorrect when you say that New Yorkers won’t shop at a store like WalMart. For starters, they already do shop at WalMart. As I mentioned above, the Valley Stream WalMart has over $100 million in credit card receipts from New York City zip codes. Second, your claim that New Yorkers won’t shop at stores where they get things like groceries at the same store as, say, electronics and clothing is also incorrect. They already do – the Target you cite offers this, as do their other branches, and they’re doing very well. Costco is doing nicely, too. And while I’m sympathetic to not wanting large stores with huge parking lots in an urban environment, as I keep repeating, the location in question already has that and, being right off several major arteries, is ideally suited for that kind of development. Our fellow New Yorkers have already voted with their wallets on this one. The blind hatred for a single corporation by a handful of elites is not a good principle for urban planning.

  • fortuna

    i don’t think walmart should open in NYC, itll ruin a economy that’s 90% based on privately owned stores and businesses and once it opens it’ll rake in cash that will only go to a few ppl and all the rest of the employees will be making minimum wage and spending even less money thatll cycle around the NYC economy, this big a business should stay in rural areas, a city isn’t a place for walmart.


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