Let Wal-Mart have Chinatown

On Tuesday, a committee of the Los Angeles City Council will consider a proposal by Councilman Ed Reyes that would place a hold on new chain-store development in Chinatown, a move that specifically would halt the planned construction of aWal-Mart grocery store in the neighborhood. There is substantial neighborhood opposition toWal-Mart, and Reyes’ motion is an understandable response. Nevertheless, the council should reject it and allow the project to go forward.

That’s not becauseWal-Martwould be such a blessing, or because Chinatown so desperately needs this store. Indeed, there are risks to allowing this project to go ahead. It could put pressure on the area’s existing markets and even drive some out of business. It could represent a crack in the historic character of a community that serves as an entry point to Southern California for immigrants arriving from China and other Asian countries. And it’s certainly true that some of the allegations about Wal-Mart’s treatment of employees are troubling.

But Reyes’ proposal is the latest iteration of a phenomenon that is crippling to the rational development of Los Angeles and its ability to create and sustain jobs. Rather than produce plans and then live by them, the City Council instead regularly intervenes to write special rules depending on the political circumstances. In the case of this project, the space at the intersection of Cesar E. Chavez and Grand avenues has been zoned for a grocery store for more than 20 years. It sits vacant today, and Wal-Mart proposes merely to comply with what the local zoning rules call for — a grocery store, one of about 33,000 square feet.

Under a rational set of zoning and development plans, a developer who proposed to do exactly what the plan calls for would be welcomed and the project would proceed without delay. That, unfortunately, is not how Los Angeles works. The way this city works, a developer who proposes to do what the city asks instead is often subject to review, delay and obstruction — or, conversely, one who befriends a council member is given favored treatment.

The real issue behind this debate is organized labor’s antipathy toward the giant retailer. That too is understandable, as Wal-Mart has faced global criticism of its workplace practices and the demands it makes on its suppliers. But its treatment of Third World suppliers is tangential to the Chinatown proposal. As for the low wages and mediocre benefits it reportedly offers, those are issues to be taken up in another forum and in a manner that would affect all companies rather than just Wal-Mart.


Here, Los Angeles has an opportunity to demonstrate that it can welcome businesses that fit into its own plans. Or it can, once again, show why it is so hard to persuade companies to create opportunities and jobs in this city.