Wal-Mart Gets Permit to Build in Chinatown

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Assemblymember Mike Eng speaks in opposition to Wal-Mart’s plan to open a 33,000-square-foot market in Chinatown during a press conference at City Hall on Friday morning.(Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

RAFU STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

The L.A. City Council voted unanimously Friday to draft a law that would effectively ban major retail chains from opening in Chinatown, but would not block a controversial Wal-Mart grocery store that received final approval late Thursday.

The 13-0 vote directed the Planning Department and City Attorney’s Office to draft a temporary ordinance to block so-called formula retail stores, stores that have standardized facades, decor, signage, or a trademark or servicemark.

The ordinance was changed on Friday to apply only to businesses that are larger than 20,000 square feet.

The motion drafted by Councilmember Ed Reyes, who represents Chinatown, had been widely viewed as a move to stop Wal-Mart from opening a 33,000-square-foot scaled-down “neighborhood market” in an existing building containing senior citizen apartments on the northwest corner of Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues.

However, officials with the Department of Building and Safety told the council Wal-Mart had been issued its final tenant improvement permit about 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, clearing a final hurdle for Wal-Mart to open and shielding the store from the proposed ordinance.

The move was supported by a handful of residents, who argued Chinatown already has four family-owned grocery stores and that major retail chains would destroy the neighborhood’s unique character.

Opponents of the ordinance, including the Los Angeles Area and Chinatown chambers of commerce, said the ordinance would have a chilling effect on businesses interested in moving to the city.

Once it is drafted, the ordinance will need the approval of the Planning Commission and the full City Council.

During a press conference prior to the vote, approximately 50 opponents of Wal-Mart gathered on the steps of City Hall to protest the store’s expansion plans. The group says that 3 supermarkets, dozens of smaller markets, 12 bakeries and 4 pharmacies would be put into direct competition with Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart has claimed that small business like mine will actually gain sales but my family and I don’t agree,” said Chris Cheung, owner of Wonder Bakery.

Cheung noted that his family has operated the bakery on Broadway since 1985 and also contributes to the community through donations to Alpine Recreational Center and other institutions.

“Wal-Mart is proposing one-stop shopping meaning customers will buy groceries, bakery goods there. Our sales at our shop will decline because Wal-Mart will offer a price that will undercut us and sell the same products as we do.”

Rep. Judy Chu

The protesters were joined by Rep. Judy Chu (D-San Gabriel) and Assemblymember Mike Eng (D-San Gabriel), who added their support for the temporary ordinance.

“I don’t want the unique nature of this area destroyed by Wal-Mart,” said Chu, who also fought the retail giant when it opened in Rosemead. “Chinatown is a place built up from the ground by the sweat of its small business owners. The cultural and historic beauty of this neighborhood must be saved.”

Eng said he was concerned that Wal-Mart hasn’t met to discuss their plans with Chinatown leaders and added that the market would add to the traffic congestion near Chinatown.

“Can anyone tell me that we shouldn’t be concerned if 1,000 people decide to drop by a large chain in Chinatown on their way home to pick up some milk at the same time that Dodger Stadium is filling up, at the same time thousands of people want to access the freeways, at the same time they’re using Union Station. Don’t we have a right to be concerned about that?” Eng stated.

Bill Imada, a supporter of Wal-Mart in Chinatown, debates Kerry Doi, who is in opposition.

A group supporting Wal-Mart also attended the meeting. On Thursday they held a press conference to offer their support for Wal-Mart, saying that the market will offer choice for the community, improved access to fresh, healthy and affordable foods, and jobs.

Big Wan Yu, a resident of the Grand Plaza Senior Apartments, was among the counter protesters. The apartment complex is next to where the Wal-Mart is proposed.

“It’s going to be so convenient for me to get groceries,” said Yu, speaking through an interpreter. “My entire building, everybody is about 70 to 80 years old. Why are people against Wal-Mart opening there?”

Bill Imada, chairman and CEO of IW Group, was among the supporters of Wal-Mart. He said the opponents need to speak with Chinatown residents such as Yu.

“The seniors are saying all these stores promised to open and nobody opened. So they have to walk a very long way to get aspirin,” said Imada. “I talked to Wal-Mart and asked are you really committed to being here, because if you are, we need to make sure that not only do you pay livable wages, but you’re going to be here for the long term. And Wal-Mart said yes.”

Wal-Mart is a client of IW Group, an Asian American marketing, advertising and public relations Agency, however Imada said he wasn’t being paid by Wal-Mart to advocate for them on this issue. He cited his criticism of Comcast, another IW client, when they fired Michael Chen, President of the Strategic Initiatives Group & Education Nation

“I am not afraid to take on Wal-Mart, I’m not afraid to take on someone that pays me. It does not buy my silence,” said Imada.

Correction: March 28, 2012:

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Chinatown Business Improvement District is against Wal-Mart coming into Chinatown. In fact, the Chinatown BID supports the entry of Wal-Mart to the area.

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