Last week, Walmart announced that it plans to close 269 stores worldwide (154 in the United States) and that it would not move forward on its D.C. stores in Capital Gateway and Skyland, both east of the river in Ward 7. Don’t let the store closures fool you, Walmart still plans to build hundreds of new stores this year. Furthermore, most of the stores that are closing are Walmart Express stores. Only 12 Supercenters are closing and the two Ward 7 stores were slated to be Supercenters.
In a previous column that I wrote on Sept. 7, 2013, titled, “D.C. residents a pawn in Walmart’s chess match,” I expressed doubt that Walmart would build the east of the river stores if they did not build those stores first. This was during the time that District officials were contemplating passing the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which would have required businesses that are at least 75,000 square feet and have more than $1 billion in sales to pay a living wage. Walmart balked at the bill and said it would not build any stores in D.C. if the bill passed.
To quote my previous column, “if LRAA passes, Walmart is threatening not to build the two planned stores east of the river and the one in Ward 5 [which ended up being scuttled], which are slated to be built in communities where retail is needed most.” Our local politicians succumbed to Walmart’s threats, then-Mayor Gray vetoed the legislation, and just enough Council members followed suit to prevent overriding his veto.” Despite giving Walmart what it wanted, unfortunately, my prediction has come to fruition. Walmart was allowed to build the three stores in Northwest first and it has now backed out of its agreement to build the two Ward 7 stores.
While I acknowledged then (and still acknowledge) that I’m not a fan of Walmart due to its labor practices, I felt that if Walmart were to come to D.C., it was imperative that it moved into the under-resourced communities first.
In my 2013 article, I stated, “We would not even be having this debate if Walmart built the first D.C. stores at Skyland Town Center and Capital Gateway, both in Ward 7, instead of in Northwest. Walmart’s leverage is based on the fear that it is those communities’ only hope to get major retail. I guarantee you that if the stores currently under construction were the two in Ward 7, the LRAA vote would not have even been close. It would have passed the Council by a veto-proof margin and Mayor Gray would have signed it. So, we are mere pawns in Queen Walmart’s chess match because city officials failed to request that Walmart build the Ward 7 stores first and now Walmart has backed the city into a corner.”
I still stand by this sentiment, but I want to be clear that this is not intended to point fingers at anyone other than Walmart. Walmart is the bad actor. Whether I agree or disagree with the actions of some elected officials, I truly believe that everyone (our previous mayor, our current mayor, and our Council members) was acting in the best interest of the city with the information that they had at the time.
So, where do we go from here? Well, we could boycott the three stores in Northwest, but let’s be honest, that won’t be effective. Those of us most willing to boycott don’t shop there anyway. There is clear evidence that Walmart is targeting stores in areas with high minimum wages for closure. We can’t let Walmart get away with this and stagnate wages nationwide, so a movement to illuminate Walmart’s latest instance of corporate greed may be effective.
The District has spent a lot of money over several decades to force existing businesses to leave Skyland by eminent domain in order to redevelop it. While some members of the nearby community wanted to upgrade the business amenities, there were others who regularly patronized these businesses. Now those businesses are gone and there is nothing to show for it.
Furthermore, there is still the matter of the Safeway covenant at Skyland, which covers the parking lot that Walmart may have used. According to the Washington Business Journal, Walmart signed its lease at Skyland in December 2014. D.C. government condemned Safeway’s covenant by eminent domain in June 2015 and asserted that the covenant had no value, but Walmart refused to move forward as long as the covenant existed. Thus, the District settled with Safeway to have the covenant removed.
Perhaps one of the best things that we can do is take this as a learning opportunity. The next time an entity wants to build in multiple parts of the District and there are some areas that need the resources more than others, the District has to be firm and demand that those areas come first. That means the District has to actually be willing to walk away from a deal if that condition is not met. This is not the 1980s. We are not begging businesses to come into the District. We have more leverage than we know, and it’s time that we, as a city, started using it to ensure that all communities have access to quality services.
Lateefah Williams writes regularly for the Blade. Her views are her own and do not represent any organization with which she is affiliated.