L.A. council proposal could keep Wal-Mart grocery out of Chinatown

Los Angeles City Council member Ed Reyes during a Public Works Commission hearing at City Hall.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Four weeks after Wal-Mart announced plans to open a grocery store in Chinatown, Los Angeles City Council members have proposed a law that would block an array of chain businesses from opening in the neighborhood.

A temporary ordinance sought by Councilman Ed Reyes would prohibit building permits from being issued for new “formula retail” stores — those that have standardized facades, color schemes, decor, employee uniforms and merchandise.

Wal-Mart is seeking to open a 33,000-square-foot market and pharmacy in a vacant ground-floor commercial space at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues. But the plan has come under fire from labor and advocacy groups that oppose the company’s wage scale, benefit plans and nonunion workforce.

Reyes said his proposal, scheduled for a vote Friday, would safeguard Chinatown’s small businesses. He said he may rewrite it so that it also addresses the increased traffic that is expected once Wal-Mart opens.

“My intent is to protect the character of Chinatown,” said Reyes, who represents that neighborhood near Dodger Stadium.

Opponents warned that Reyes’ proposal could block a wide range of chain businesses from opening in Chinatown, including banks, grocery stores, fast-food places and Boba tea houses. They complain that Reyes is quietly fast-tracking his plan for a full council vote without normal public input.

“This is a sneak attack to try to stop Wal-Mart before it gets the necessary permits to begin construction,” said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn., a downtown-based business group.

Reyes allowed his motion, which also was signed by Councilman Eric Garcetti, to bypass the committee that usually vets such ordinances, preventing it from receiving a public hearing. He wants the council to vote Friday to instruct City Atty. Carmen Trutanich to draft the proposed ordinance. As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the proposal had not appeared on any agenda for that day.

Because Wal-Mart is moving into an existing building, the company does not need council approval but will need construction permits to upgrade the space.

Wal-Mart and City Hall have been at odds before. In 2004, the City Council approved an ordinance that made it more difficult for the company to open one of its “superstores,” which combine the traditional discount offerings with groceries.

One of the company’s most influential critics is the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a labor-oriented advocacy group that contends a Wal-Mart grocery would damage Chinatown businesses. James Elmendorf, the group’s deputy director, said Reyes’ moratorium could be approved in time to block Wal-Mart from starting construction.

Eventually, he said, a new, permanent ordinance would create a special approval process for chain stores opening in Chinatown. “That would give Chinatown residents and businesses a voice on whether it will help or hurt their community,” Elmendorf said.

Schatz said the proposal could set a precedent for other neighborhoods to target chain stores such as Whole Foods Market and Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market. “What’s to stop this from being used in any community where a nonunion retailer is trying to get in?” she asked.

Reyes said he is not trying to keep Wal-Mart or any retailer from opening and will rewrite his proposal to make sure it doesn’t have “unintended consequences.”

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart criticized Reyes’ proposal, saying it has “nothing to do with the needs of the district and everything to do with serving outside interests.”

“It speaks volumes that the community was not consulted in the writing of the motion,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo.