Try as it might, looks like L.A. County can't keep scandalously low Wal-Mart prices out of its strip malls forever.
After almost a decade of resistance from local governments and small businesses throughout California, Wal-Mart has found a loophole in the permitting process: All it has to do is set up shop in buildings vacated by similar bix-box retailers, and it can bypass environmental impact reports and other zoning hurdles.
"It appears what they want to do is not too different from what Great Indoors did and therefore is permitted under the development agreement..."
... Burbank Deputy City Manager Jay Forbes tells the Los Angeles Business Journal today. "We can't take back development rights already granted 10 years ago."
Danny Feingold, communications director for the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), said the same thing in July: He told us that now, using sneaky strategies like "smaller stores and different formats" to get past "size-based regulations," Wal-Mart is "making a really strong push after getting its comeuppance a few years ago."
The Business Journal reveals today that this method will not only grant the company access to kicking-and-screaming Burbank, but an entire new crop of Wal-Mart virgins:
One broker, speaking confidentially, said Wal-Mart is scouting at least 15 potential sites in Southern California and 15 in Northern California. He said Wal-Mart is interested in existing shells, already entitled, and will look at small sizes - not just Wal-Mart's usual mammoth spaces.
The shells Wal-Mart is hoping to hermit-crab include a closed Circuit City in the Northridge Fashion Center and shuttered Great Indoors lots in both Burbank and Irvine, according to the newspaper.
Here's some schooling on the company's plight in SoCal (if multi-billion-dollar empires are even capable of "plight"), from the Weekly's June story on the classic Burbank struggle between common man and corporate giant:
In 2004, Wal-Mart Inc. was dealt a major blow after it announced plans to build 60 superstores throughout California. Lean, green activists in both NorCal and SoCal fought tooth and nail to bar out the chain, often via city zoning regulations.
Among the biggest victors of that movement were the voters of Inglewood, who defeated a big-money-backed referendum that would have allowed Wal-Mart to open a 60-acre retail village in their hood.
But the Great Recession, while devastating for mom-and-pop shops, can be a powerful tool for a beast like Wal-Mart. Harder-hit chains are closing branches, leaving permit-free spaces for Wal-Mart to snatch up. Meanwhile, consumers are desperate for the cheapest prices -- no matter the implications on workers and surrounding stores.
Writes resident Eric Harlacher in a recent letter to the Burbank Leader: "There's nothing less American than a predatory retailer. The math here is obvious, too: one pays lower prices for goods at Walmart but at what cost to American jobs?"
Feingold explained to us in July that Wal-Mart is notoriously anti-union, known for lowering labor standards in the towns it conquers. And such economic devastators would still apply to these smaller, friendlier neighborhood alternatives Wal-Mart is fixing to pitch to L.A. communities as one of their own.
Since we last checked up on the "No Wal Mart in Burbank" movement, its Facebook following has reached almost 650 people. And the activists behind it have charged ahead with a new approach to warding off the Waltons as neighbors:
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They're vetting a bill on Governor Jerry Brown's desk that would require Wal-Mart to "include an economic analysis as part of the routine local permitting process."
Another fascinating link on the opposition's Facebook page leads to a Reddit IAMA (a la Magic champion Jon Finkel) with a former employee of a vegetable farm that supplied produce to Wal-Mart. And let's just say, the As to the Qs: Not pretty.
We've contacted the mothership for comment.