Walmart in Brooklyn? Not so fast

WalmartWalmart is reportedly looking to open a store in Brooklyn, the company's first there and its closest to Manhattan, but there are more than a few hurdles for the company to clear before New Yorkers can begin shopping those every day low prices.

Lack of available land used to be the biggest barrier to big box stores to entering urban areas -- there just aren't a lot of places big enough to handle a 200,000-square-foot supercenter. But in the case of Walmart, finding land may prove to be easier than getting local municipalities to let them in, and New York is no exception.

Attempts to open stores in Queens and on Staten Island were squashed by opposition, including labor unions trying to block the non-union store from entering the market, and activists who take issue with the companies labor and business practices.

According to reports, Walmart is considering a location at the Gateway II shopping center at Jamaica Bay. Walmart denies the rumors, sending this statement via e-mail from Steven Restivo, director of community affairs: "We do not have a project to announce anywhere within the five boroughs of New York City. However, we know that New Yorkers want to shop and work at Walmart and as a result, we continue to evaluate potential opportunities here. New Yorkers want quality jobs and affordable groceries and it remains our goal to be part of the solution."

It's the standard line from Walmart and not entirely media hogwash. In Chicago, where I live, Walmart has battled for years to open stores inside the city limits, but gets blocked by politicians and labor unions at every turn. Putting aside the knee jerk reaction -- "Walmart is bad, Walmart pushed out small businesses, and Walmart jobs pay less than other jobs" -- it's important to note the location of Walmart's currently contested/intended store.

The Pullman Park neighborhood on Chicago's far South side is a pretty bleak part of town. A "food desert" with few places for residents to shop. There aren't small businesses to close down and no jobs to speak of, well paying or not. The entire project is more than a Walmart store and includes a variety of affordable housing types set to receive city subsidies.

The Walmart store isn't slated for subsidies, a departure from previous development deals that were killed by the Chicago City Council. Oddly enough, Target regularly gets these very subsidies with no protest at all. In fact, Target's lead architect, Rich Varda, once told a group at the Chicago Cultural Center that communities routinely blocked Walmart's entry and then reached out to Target offering tax subsidies to open stores. Walmart is expanding its lobbying efforts in Chicago, and we expect to see a renewed push for stores here.

What does this have to do with Walmart opening in Brooklyn? Everything. Walmart looking to open stores in urban areas is ongoing, and the retailer has spent years developing formats to best serve these markets. Talking to developers is also just another day for Walmart's store planning and real estate departments. All of that is well and good, but if the zoning is stalled or denied, there's not much anyone can do. Not the poor people of Chicago's South and West sides, or those in Manhattan of all demographics.
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