Walmart: Love it or hate it, the future is now for Brooklyn

February 3, 2011 Heather Chin
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Despite opening hundreds of superstores in all corners of thecountry and across the globe, Walmart has faced years of oppositionin its efforts to open a New York City outpost, first in Manhattan,then Staten Island and most recently in Queens. But with jobsscarce and the city eager to court ever-bigger retail projects,Brooklyn might turn out to be the golden ticket for the nation’slargest retailer.

After previously considering a New York superstore to not be worththe effort, Walmart representatives have confirmed that they arespeaking with developers, brokers and landlords throughout the fiveboroughs to finally hammer out a deal. But it is Brooklyn residentsthat the company is targeting with direct-mail, radio ads and aNYC-specific website that highlights their low prices and thepromise of jobs.

Wholesale and big box retailers like Target and BJ’s are nothingnew to New Yorkers, but even so, the idea of a Walmart setting up asuperstore in their backyard is already worrying some localbusiness owners.

[Walmart] tends to suck the vitality out of local retail strips,said Robert Howe, president of the Third Avenue MerchantsAssociation in Bay Ridge. If you would do that to Third or FifthAvenue and 86th Street, it would be empty. Strong commercial stripsmake for strong communities.

Walmart may have its place in the middle-of-nowhere, U.S.A., butin terms of the New York City metropolitan area, the beauty of BayRidge is that in a 10-block radius, you can buy, meet, greet peopleand get everything you need, added Howe.

But others view the opening of a Walmart as just a naturaloutgrowth of the big box store popularity in Brooklyn and acrossthe city.

Pat Condren, executive director of the 86th Street BID, had a veryeven-handed opinion on the topic: We in Bay Ridge – the smallbusinesses – are pleased they’re not coming to this neighborhood.However, clearly, Walmart provides a need throughout the countryand there seems to be a lot of New Yorkers who want to get thereinstead of going to New Jersey. So there’s a pro and a con. We’recertainly small business focused in this neighborhood, but needlessto say, there seems to be a place for Walmart in the world.

Still others take a different approach: Walmart is not the onlystore in town, said James F. Clark, president of the Bay RidgeFifth Avenue Business Improvement District. Walmart really won’taffect Fifth Avenue. It’s been going [small retailers along FifthAvenue] on for 25 years.

Bay Ridge is more mom-and-pop stores. The biggest store is Century21 on 86th Street [and] I believe we’re getting a TJ Maxx on 86thand Fifth also. They will still do well, he said, showing hisstrong support and favor of the small businessperson.

How will they thrive in this competitive environment? Clark seemedsure of the answer: One word: service. Small stores serve thepeople better.

With complaints – justified or not – of low wages and limitedbenefits for workers, and the perception that the arrival of aWalmart leaves swaths of shuttered mom-and-pop shops in its wake,Walmart’s attention to Brooklyn has fueled petitions and apush-back campaign from some NY City Council members. CouncilSpeaker Christine Quinn held a public hearing on the issue (Walmartdeclined the invitation) this week. That hearing, too late forpublication in this issue, will be the subject of an article innext week’s paper.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on the other hand, supports the retailer’spresence, explaining that New York needs to be big businessfriendly. Also supporting Walmart are the city’s constructionunions, which this week struck a five-year deal to provide workersfor any building projects that Walmart embarks on in thecity.

Two of the most promising sites for Walmart are the GatewayShopping Center II just east of the Starrett City/Canarsie sectionof the borough, and the planned Four Sparrows Marsh Retail Mallalong Flatbush Avenue, south of Avenue U and just north of the BeltParkway, in the Mill Basin section. This is because two real estatedevelopers – Related Co. and Forest City Ratner, the latterresponsible for the Nets Arena and the Atlantic Yards projects indowntown Brooklyn – already have development rights in those areasand don’t need city approval to bring in a private retailer.

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