A hearing before the LA City Council on an ordinance intended to thwart a proposed Chinatown Walmart took an unexpected turn Friday when opponents learned that permits for the project had been quietly issued on Thursday afternoon.
City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the area, proposed a temporary moratorium that he thought would restrict building, demolition and other permits for chain stores in the area, including the proposed 33,000-square-foot grocery store at the northwest corner of Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues.
However, Walmart's construction permits for the Chinatown market were issued Thursday, and the proposed ordinance would not directly affect the store, Robert "Bud" Ovrom, general manager of the city's Building and Safety Department, told Reyes and the rest of the council on Friday.
“This project is moving forward," Ovrom told the council. "This ordinance would not have any immediate impact on this project.”
Ovrom added that Walmart was cleared by the city to begin construction.
"Now that our Walmart Neighborhood Market has received all necessary approvals, we look forward to serving downtown customers soon," Steven Restivo, senior director of community affairs at Walmart, said in a statement.
Reyes, who appeared surprised by the news, quickly shifted gears, focusing on safety issues he said would arise from increased traffic generated by chain stores as the driving issue behind the proposed ordinance.
"We are not stopping any supermarket from coming in, we are not holding back jobs,” Reyes said. “We are making it safer."
The proposed development would be about one-fifth the size of a typical Walmart, allowing the retailer to sidestep the LA superstore ordinance passed in 2004, which allowed the city to review implications like job quality and potential neighborhood business loss before approving stores larger than 100,000 square feet.
Like the council, several residents, community advocates and business-owners who appeared at the hearing were apparently unaware that the ordinance under review on Friday would not affect the proposed Walmart.
Passions ran high as speakers expressed their opposing views on the project.
Some bemoaned what they called Walmart’s bad track record with employees and its tendency to drive away small businesses, while others argued that the supermarket would help revitalize the neighborhood, bringing in more traffic and much-needed food options.
"Given the widespread support from the Chinatown community for new grocery stores, it's clear that this [proposed ordinance] has nothing to do with the needs of the district and everything to do with serving outside special interests," Restivo said in a news release.
“No matter what Walmart has said in the papers,” one young Chinatown resident said. “We are the community and we don’t want the store.”
The council voted 13-0 to move ahead with the moratorium, even though it does not affect the Walmart project.