DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - A number of Los Angeles elected officials just can’t seem to let go of the fact that Wal-Mart outfoxed them seven months ago on plans for a new Downtown-area store. Either that or they just can’t say no to the powerful labor lobby, which is bringing out the big guns to thwart a 33,000-square-foot market that is under construction at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues. 

Whatever the case, the members of the City Council should come to terms with the store’s impending arrival and do so quickly, because the steps they are taking could prove dangerous to future business propositions in the city. The results could harm Los Angeles’ economic base well after many of the current council members have left office. 

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 10 members of the council voted in favor of a temporary ban on big box stores in and around Chinatown. While that represents a majority of the council, in this case it was not enough — 12 votes were needed to pass the ordinance pushed by Councilman Ed Reyes, whose First District includes the space in question at 701 W. Cesar Chavez Ave. At press time, union officials were seeking to persuade two council members to switch their position.

It is important to understand what is at stake here. Passing the ordinance would not immediately stop the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail behemoth from proceeding on the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, which would fill a ground-floor space in a senior housing complex. Rather, it would have led to a stalling of the project if an ongoing protest over the store’s permits ultimately gains traction.

There is plenty of backstory here. Eight years ago, Wal-Mart tried to bring its superstores to Los Angeles. City officials responded by requiring anyone hoping to open a store larger than 100,000 square feet to prepare a report analyzing the proposed outlet’s impact on things such as job quality and traffic. It largely stopped the superstore push.

All was quiet until the new Downtown proposal, which is slated for a spot that has been empty for two decades. In fact, the space was always intended to hold a supermarket. It has 140 parking spaces for customers and the type of loading docks that can handle delivery trucks.

Wal-Mart’s labor practices and wages have earned it the fierce opposition of unions and others across the country. So it should not have been surprising that local labor groups were protesting from day one. Really, they aren’t so worried about the one store. Rather, the concern is over Wal-Mart getting its toe in the door in Los Angeles.

Labor has a number of allies on the council, and in March the panel approved an ordinance aimed at stopping the store. However, that’s where Wal-Mart got the jump on the city — it secured its building permits the day before the council vote. That is all that was legally required, and work is underway on the space and hiring has begun. An opening is planned for next year.

That is why the current council move is dangerous. Wal-Mart played by the rules the city set up long ago. It seemed the matter had ended seven months back, but now the issue has roared to life again. 

The message this sends to other large retailers is disconcerting. Who will want to bring a business to town if they know the rules of the game can be changed after approvals are received and construction has begun? Allowing this uncertainty is a terrible business move on the part of the city. It is also one that nearly half of the council won’t have to deal with long-term, since seven of its members will likely be gone by July 1, whether because of term limits or other factors.

This editorial is not a strike against labor — the unions are crucial in ensuring that people are paid fairly, and they are a necessary counterweight to the powerful business lobby. 

Nor is this adoration of Wal-Mart. We’re among those who are concerned about the store’s potential impact on smaller businesses in and around Downtown and the wages it pays. We can think of a large handful of other supermarkets or retailers we’d prefer to see in the space.

Still, the city can’t change the game in the middle. Even if the goals are noble, it’s an unfair move and sends a terrible message to other business owners who will want to avoid such hassle.

There’s one other aspect too: People should stop pretending this is about protecting the look, feel and historic integrity of Chinatown. The proposed Wal-Mart is a healthy walk from the heart of that community. It’s not like a big-box store is being plopped in Central Plaza or that it is opening on a busy, pedestrian-heavy block on Hill Street or Broadway. 

Instead, the store will open cater-corner to the space-age High School of the Visual and Performing Arts and near the massive Italian-influenced Orsini apartments. Those didn’t change life in Chinatown. Neither will this store.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012