L.A. Now

Bid to halt Wal-Mart in L.A.'s Chinatown falls short

A proposed temporary ban on big-box retail stores in Chinatown fell short Tuesday when Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes failed to get enough votes.

But council members say they may reconsider the issue as early as Wednesday.

The attempted ban came after months of protracted controversy, spurred by Wal-Mart's effort to open a grocery store in the neighborhood. The company already has building permits and is at work remodeling a vacant storefront.

"Chinatown is special," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who sponsored the proposal and whose district includes the neighborhood. "I'd hate for Broadway to turn into Main Street suburbia."

Labor unions and community groups chafed at the discount retailer's plans for a 33,000 square-foot store on the ground floor of an apartment building at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues.

They pushed for the temporary ban and sought to block Wal-Mart's permits, arguing that the presence of the discount retailer would endanger local merchants and the unique culture of the area. Organized labor has historically been critical of Wal-Mart's use of nonunion workers and lower wages.

The proposed ordinance relied on a state law that allows local governments to temporarily restrict certain land uses for 45 days, which can be extended up to two years, while officials study the likely consequences of development. The measure required at least 12 of 15 council votes to pass but received only 10.

Even if the measure had passed, it would not have immediately blocked the Chinatown Wal-Mart.

But activists had hoped the ordinance would come into play if they win an administrative appeal over the way Wal-Mart obtained its permits in March. That decision could be made within a month.

"Who is big business to come in and tell Chinatown small businesses that they can't make a decision that is the best for their community?" said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a regional umbrella organization for unions.

Larry Jung, who sits on the board of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, said the unions don't represent the entire community.

"We want to decide our own destiny," Jung said. "Let the people that live there decide with their pocketbooks whether large corporations can serve the community."

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who voted against the measure, says his district has a dearth of grocery stores because of various efforts to discourage large, non-union retailers.

"We are being held hostage over these philosophical views," Parks said, adding that the Chinatown storefront has been vacant for decades. He said efforts to pass such measures are "hypocritical" at a time when leaders are trying to lure businesses back to the city and boost the jobs market.

Union members wearing bright yellow T-shirts were undaunted, chanting "We will be back! We will be back!" as they exited City Hall.

Carrie Gan, a lifelong resident of Chinatown, said she supports the project, which would be one-fifth the size of a typical Wal-Mart store.

"I'm not saying anything about the mom-and-pop stores, because I still go there. But I want some place where I can go get my toothpaste and toilet paper."

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