Baltimore, MD. City Council Ignores Neighbors, Approves Bail Out for Wal-Mart
On October 6, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that city officials in Baltimore, Maryland were throwing public cash at the world's largest retailer, in what could be called Wal-Mart's "Baltimore Bailout."
This week the City Council in Baltimore voted with only one abstention to rezone land for a 300,000 s.f. retail and housing project on 11 acres, anchored by Wal-Mart and Lowe's, and underwritten by the taxpayers. This will be the Charm City's second Wal-Mart -- this one in the northern Baltimore neighborhood of Remington.
While neighbors stood outside City Hall holding signs which read, "We can do better," and "We need a living wage," lawmakers inside were sealing the deal with Wal-Mart. Plans call for a 93,000 s.f. supercenter that will be located on top of a 100,000 s.f. Lowe's home improvement store. The proposal is known as the 25th Street Station.
Last year the City Council approved significant tax breaks for this project. This parcel of land is located in what Baltimore calls a "focus area," which is really a "subsidy area" for large corporations. Under the focus area plan, a retailer can receive major property tax subsidies, on top of tax credits for hiring workers in the community. One estimate put the tax breaks as high as $10 million over the next decade. In addition to the 'focus area,' this site is also designated as an 'enterprise zone,' which comes with other candy store tax incentives. The site currently houses a closed automobile business, Anderson Automotive, which went belly up when the recession ran over the auto industry.
Eight years ago Wal-Mart opened up its first Baltimore store in the waterfront area. Now Wal-Mart is trying to promote this new project as a 'green' building, because it will have a 'green roof' with vegetation to filter the storm water runoff from the roof. The developer claims that the project, which is estimated to cost $90 million, will produce 750 permanent jobs, which includes the Lowe's, the Wal-Mart, a Marshall's, A Staples, and an Anna's Linen store.
The Canadian developer, WV Urban Developments, said they tried to get grocery chains interested in the site, but had no luck -- except for Wal-Mart. The developer's job figures are not adjusted for the jobs that are killed at other retailers.
The Montreal-based developer said Wal-Mart approached them, because the retailer had done an internal survey which showed that nearly 4 out of 10 shoppers in Baltimore leave the city to shop in suburban areas, and 7 out 10 people surveyed said they approved of the idea of a second Wal-Mart in Baltimore. It's the same "food desert" argument used by developers in Chicago.
As is always the case, many area residents near the 25th Street Station wanted nothing to do with the project. A group called the Remington Neighborhood Alliance raised concerns over traffic and the unattractive design typical of big box stores. "We're not going to be focused on who the tenants are," one leader of the RNA told the Daily Record. "We're going to be focused on the physical details of the project, and the impact on the neighborhood." The Wal-Mart store as designed will be right up against the street edge. The project also includes up to 85 housing units, and 16 small retail stores on the first floors of the rear of these houses.
Wal-Mart needed to get a Planned Unit Development from the Planning Board. On April 13, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had dropped a bombshell on the neighborhood. The developers told the audience at a community meeting that they want their Remington Wal-Mart to stay open 24 hours a day. Wal-Mart is writing its own ticket to give the Baltimore City Council: legislation that would allow the project to be built, and to stay open all night.
The Remington Neighborhood Alliance (RNA) was not thrilled with the idea of this huge store being lit up all night, with people coming and going. Wal-Mart parking lots are one of the most crime-infested retail locations in the country. Joan Floyd, the President of the RNA, said residents will not be pleased with the all-night plan. "It's going to raise some new concerns," she told the Baltimore Sun. "We're going to have to see how this plays out."
To get this project approved, the City Council had to vote to rezone the land and accept legislation that allows 300,000 s.f. of retail space, including the Lowe's and the Wal-Mart. The developer made it clear that the 24 hour plan is something Wal-Mart says it needs. "We don't get to decide that," the developer's lawyer said. "That's what the retailer wants. There are people who think that a 24-hour operation is better because you have people there all the time." A 24/7 store may be what Wal-Mart wants -- but the real issue is what the neighborhood wants.
Neighbors spoke out about traffic congestion, store security, Wal-Mart's track record in putting smaller stores out of business, and paying low-everyday wages. But the developer's lawyer tried to give the project a positive spin. "I would encourage you to keep an open mind. The direction the company is taking is extremely impressive. There are people who don't like Wal-Mart. There are people who are going to die hating Wal-Mart."
In early October, the City Council's Land Use Committee approved the Remington Wal-Mart project on a unanimous vote. The City Councilor who represents this district, Belinda Conaway, told The Sun, "I'm not happy. I don't want an 11-acre vacant piece of property in my district, but I still want to work with the developers and Wal-Mart to increase benefits to workers."
Conaway is not the only elected official who wants higher wages and benefits to be part of the deal, but the Vice President of the City Council has suggested that wages are not part of a zoning discussion.
On October 29th, the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel approved of the 25th Street Station's design. On November 8th, the City Council voted 15-0 to approve the project. All that remained was the routine final vote on November 22nd.
Councilor Belinda Conaway continues to believe that Wal-Mart is a form of economic development. "As opposed to having vacant property sitting in the district," she told ABC News, " I'd definitely rather have a retail area that creates jobs and uplifts the neighborhood." But this large parcel was not likely to remain vacant, and could have been used for mixed use development with a range of smaller, local businesses more beneficial to the economy -- rather than another national chain store.
One City Councilor worried about the economic impact of the store. "I worry about places like Falkenhan Hardware Store," Councilor Mary-Pat Clarke told ABC. "I'm hoping that we will come out of this with some kind of program to help the local businesses."
Clarke explained that Baltimore's legal department would not allow a 'living wage' ordinance to be inserted into the Wal-Mart deal. "We the taxpayers are subsidizing the big retailers because they're paying minimum wage and we're making up the difference with the section 8 vouchers, the housing vouchers," Clarke said.
Clarke told WBAL TV that she would continue to push for a living wage of $10.59 per hour. "I just need one more vote for a citywide living wage bill for retail workers," she told WBAL.
The TV station called the neighbors who stood in front of City Hall "protestors." One of the neighbors told the station, "We desperately need jobs -- but we don't need poverty jobs and poverty wages." Another sign quoted Wal-Mart as saying: "Baltimore was the easiest city to get into." Only Councilman Carl Stokes refused to vote for Wal-Mart. He abstained.
What you can do:
Wal-Mart may be coming -- unless the neighbors appeal the rezoning -- but the battle over a living wage is far from over. A group called Baltimore CAN, comprised of labor and community groups, rallied the same day that Wal-Mart was approved in support of living wages. The group wanted the living wage made part of the conditions for Wal-Mart's approval.
"We just want to make sure we have smart development and that Wal-Mart takes care of the city," said one CAN spokeswoman. Baltimore already has a living wage, but it only covers city contractors, requiring them to pay an hourly wage set by the city.
Councilwoman Mary-Pat Clarke says her bill will affect all retailers who gross $10 million annually in sales -- which would easily affect Wal-Mart.
But no one is talking about the tax giveaway to Wal-Mart. Companies like Lowe's and Wal-Mart -- some of the most prosperous retailers on the globe -- do not need tax subsidies to build their stores, in Baltimore or anywhere else. Yet city officials pile on the perks, without justification or examination.
This tax investment is not creating "quality jobs," and offers little by way of opportunity. Retailing in Baltimore the past few years has been like a game of musical chairs. When the music stops, someone is left without a chair to sit on.
About a year ago, Filene's Basement announced that it was closing down three stores in Baltimore. Other major retailers have shut down also. Regional retailer Boscov's Department Stores shut down three stores, and discount retailer C-Mart closed a store last year as well. One of the Filene's stores that closed was in the Towson Place Shopping Center. The store was only open for five years. It was located near a Wal-Mart and a Target in the same mall.
The rash of store closings cost the city hundreds of jobs -- which explains why Wal-Mart's claim of "new" jobs is not a credible figure. The big box national chains like Wal-Mart kill off the smaller regional chains like Filene's, Boscov's and C-Mart. And the city gives them subsidies to do it -- welfare that smaller retailers cannot qualify for.
Readers are urged to email Baltimore City Councilor Mary-Pat Clarke at MaryPat.Clarke@baltimorecity.gov with this message:
"Dear Councilor Clarke, You led the effort for a living wage law in 1994 when you were City Council President. I urge you to keep pushing now for enough votes to pass a retail living wage law that expands upon your current statute.
Baltimore does not need more suburban sprawl like the proposed Wal-Mart, and many neighbors are not supportive of allowing Wal-Mart to remain open all night. Don't be fooled by the development team's talk about 750 jobs. If you talk to your small businesses, they will explain to you why Filene's is gone, why Boscov's left, why C-Mart shut down a store.
There are no 'new' jobs being created by this project. Wal-Mart has been compared to the plague: it makes all businesses sick, and kills the weak.
Please use your influence to strip away all public subsidies for this giant corporation, and let Wal-Mart and Lowe's pay the full cost without bailout money. Do not invest one dime of tax breaks in this project. The idea of giving the billionaire Walton family free money from the taxpayers is really beyond logic.
If Wal-Mart and Lowe's cannot pull off this project financially, like small businesses have to do, then let them find another city to leach from. Keep taxpayer welfare out of the deal, and tell Wal-Mart to pay its own way, or look for a handout somewhere else. This is the kind of bailout that has angered the public: welfare for the rich.
Your small businesses in the neighborhood watch as the large players get one more tax break that the small guy cannot get. Remove from this project any public welfare as part of the 'focus area' and 'enterprise zone' tax breaks, and delete the 24 hour provision in the plan. And keep the pressure on for retail living wage law."