Be wary of 'big box' building ban's collateral damage
The City Council is considering a proposal to prohibit "big box" supercenters from being built on Oahu.
COURTS in California have upheld a city's ordinance to ban big-box retailers, and Honolulu's City Council is considering adoption of a similar but less restrictive ban
. The Council should look at all the ramifications before deciding whether to adopt such a barrier, aimed mainly -- but apparently inadequately -- at Wal-Mart.
Turlock, Calif., near Modesto, responded two years ago to a plan by Wal-Mart to build a 225,000-square-foot supercenter by enacting an ordinance prohibiting any retail store larger than 100,000 square feet and devoting more than 5 percent of its space to groceries. Wal-Mart sued, but the law was upheld last month by the California Supreme Court and by a federal judge in Fresno.
Honolulu's proposed ordinance, introduced by Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, would prohibit the building of supercenters of more than 90,000 square feet with more than 20,000 square feet dedicated to groceries. It would resemble but be less restrictive than the Turlock ordinance or a ban imposed by Tucson, Ariz., seven years ago on stores of more than 100,000 square feet with at least 10 percent of the floor space devoted to groceries.
Tucson officials have been in a quandary this summer over waivers sought for a proposal to build an extravagant complex, including a University of Arizona bioscience park, upscale housing and a big-box retail store in what the Arizona Daily Star describes as one of the city's most depressed areas. Wal-Mart has indicated it would be interested in being the big-box tenant but denies having discussed that possibility with the developer.
Wal-Mart has undergone its sharpest criticism not for its size, but for its treatment of employees, many of whom are paid low wages and are hired parttime so they do not qualify for health benefits. Chicago's city council gained attention last month by approving a proposal to require that stores with more than 90,000 square feet owned by companies with more than $1 billion in annual sales pay their employees, including part-timers, $10 an hour and $3 an hour in benefits by 2010. Wal-Mart is planning to open its first store in the city next month.
That measure would affect not only Wal-Mart, whose entry-level wages in the Chicago area are $7.25 an hour, but more than 30 other retailers, including Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Toys "R" Us, Home Depot and Lowes. Mayor Richard Daley is considering his first veto since taking office in 1989 but would have to turn over two aldermen to avoid an override.
The Honolulu proposal's most visible proponent is a citizens group trying to stop Wal-Mart from building an outlet at the intersection of Makakilo Drive and Farrington Highway in Kapolei, but the ban might have no effect in its present form. A Wal-Mart official said the building will have less than 20,000 square feet devoted to grocery sales, thus it won't meet the definition of a supercenter as defined in the proposed ordinance.