Wrapped in Chains

October 15, 1990|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON — Washington. "US KIDS CAN'T even play in the park because of all the grocery store bums that hang around our neighborhood. And the smell -- Yuck!''

Ten-year-old Katy Fitzpatrick, writing to the management of Walgreen Drug Stores, minces few words in denouncing the idea of yet another mega-store invading the New Orleans neighborhood where she lives.

The street where Katy lives isn't typical. It's in the 150-year-old Garden District, renowned for its galleried mansions and ornamental cast ironwork, in Gothic, Greek Revival and Italianate architecture styles. The neighborhood's a National Historic Landmark.

No matter. Walgreens wants to plunk what the neighbors are calling ''a large commercially intensive drug-liquor-convenience store'' onto Magazine Street, an old two-lane street of quaint antique stores and restaurants.

It's enough, say the locals, that one A&P grocery store intrudes on the historic scene. Walgreens pitch for a 12,000-square-foot store, surrounded by a big parking lot, is a last straw.

''Drug stores today are no longer soda fountains and candy shops,'' says local resident Larry Schmidt. ''They're 18- to 24-hour-a day stores. They sell a lot of liquor. They create a bad and dangerous situation for our neighborhood, a potential magnet for crime.''

What's more, by insisting on parking lots in front, Walgreen stores spoil a neighborhood's streetscape and character.

But Walgreens, a chain headquartered in Deerfield, Ill., coldly informs any objectors to its sites that it ''doesn't meet with outside individuals or groups.''

The Garden District residents are trying to throw up zoning barriers. They've threatened a boycott, enlisted Rep. Lindy Boggs, D-La., and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to intervene on their behalf. But Walgreens has a local real estate agent and councilman on its side -- and it's not accustomed to losing.

Another national chain, Wal-Mart stores, has been generating as much rage among small-town retailers as Walgreen Drug Stores on old city streets. Providing all-under-one-roof retailing at prices local merchants have difficulty matching, the Wal-Mart stores have descended on Southern and Midwestern towns with a vengeance.

''In the whole scheme of things, there are only so many watches and roto-tillers to be sold in any given market,'' says Jeff Finkle of the Washington-based Council for Urban Economic Development. ''Wal-Mart has been the destroyer of a number of traditional downtowns.''

More than a few, it would appear. The Arkansas-based firm, which earned $837 million on sales of $20.6 billion in 1988, has close to 1,400 stores and has made founder Sam Walton one of America's richest men with an estimated worth of some $7 billion, Business World magazine reports.

Grown to be America's third largest retailer, behind Sears and K-Mart, Wal-Mart -- in the words of a Salomon Brothers retail analysis -- ''just cannibalizes Main Street.'' The phenomenon is reminiscent of the devastating impact of regional malls on urban downtowns. Nor is it unusual for Wal-Mart to demand new utility lines, revised zoning, tax breaks and special financing for the ''favor'' of locating in a town.

In the annals of corporate bravado, it's tough to find an equal to Wal-Mart's record in lovely, state capital Lincoln, Neb. First, a year ago last spring, Wal-Mart was rebuffed by the city council when the company proposed a 220,000-square-foot store in a neighborhood that residents complained was already over-retailed and crowded with traffic.

Its promise of 300 to 350 new jobs, said Councilwoman Jo Gutgsell, might be illusory because other stores would likely be forced out of business. Nor was she pleased by Wal-Mart's heavy-handed tactics, its refusal to consider alternate locations. ''If you want a be a good community citizen, you don't come in and try to roll over the community,'' Mr. Gutgsell said.

A few months later, Wal-Mart was back with another Lincoln proposal. This time it wanted to go into an edge of downtown. And it demanded a remarkable set of concessions: The city must clear 12 entire city blocks, including 15 historic buildings. It must force 59 existing businesses to relocate, displace 826 jobs, move railroad tracks and an electrical substation.

Total cost to the taxpayers would have been $18 million. For all that, they'd have gotten a massive one-story discount store surrounded by a two-by-three-block parking lot accessible only to Wal-Mart's.

Mayor Bill Harris told me the Wal-Mart bid was so outrageous he told the firm it was a ''no-go.''

The big drug stores and retailers have a point: They provide convenience and good prices for consumers. Who's to deny their right to compete? And located on auto-oriented commercial strips, they're no more or less ugly than their neighbors.

Should any town or city lean over backward to accommodate the big firms with their all-or-nothing demands for their formula-type of store? Why hurry to give a green light to chains that may force longtime, tax-paying local stores to the wall?

The counsel to all towns is simple enough: Caveat emptor.

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