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04.19.2010
Warding Off Walmart
Can the mega-chain break into Chicago?
If Pullman Park is approved by the Chicago City Council, a Walmart store would anchor the massive development on the site of a former steel factory.
Courtesy YoChicago.com

From its humble beginnings in 1960s Arkansas, Walmart has become a retail juggernaut, with more than 4,300 outlets now stretching from Calais, Maine, to Lihue, Hawaii. While the familiar big-box store seems to pop up every few miles, Walmart has still failed to crack a handful of major urban centers, including New York and Los Angeles.

Another holdout is the Windy City, but that could change thanks to a planned mixed-use development on the Far South Side. Even though more than a dozen Walmarts ring Chicago, only one is within city limits, and that was built only after political wrangling in 2006. Since then, Walmart has pursued five other locations, and the backlash, buoyed by union opposition, has only intensified.

In recent months, aldermen favoring Walmarts in their wards have turned to the recession to bolster arguments about new jobs and development in underserved neighborhoods. Meanwhile, unions and community groups continue to counter that the low-paying work offered by Walmart is worse than no jobs at all.

“This goes beyond just quality of life and union jobs but where we want Chicago to be and what the city is about,” said Marina Faz-Huppert, legislative and political director for Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, one of Walmart’s main opponents nationwide.

According to observers, Walmart is most interested in a location at West 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue, in the Chatham section on the South Side. Howard Brookins, the alderman in the local ward, has come to support the project after initial resistance. “I was skeptical six years ago, when Walmart first showed up, but everyone told us to wait, which I did,” Brookins said. “We’ve gone to everyone. Kmart, Walgreens, you name it. Nobody’s been interested but Walmart.”

Brookins had agreed in the past that Walmart jobs might not be the most secure, but, he argues, at least they exist. Besides, without a commercial pioneer it is difficult to attract other stores. “We had the first Best Buy in any African American community in the country, and now they’ve got one in Compton and in Harlem,” he said. “We’re creating opportunities all across the country.”

Meanwhile, neighboring Alderman Freddrenna Lyle vociferously opposes the development. “I have an old, established African American middle-class community that has worked hard through very daunting times to support and maintain small businesses,” Lyle said. “These businesses for the most part would be within the radioactive zone of a proposed Walmart.”

The council, under pressure from unions, has largely backed Lyle, and they point to a Loyala-UIC study released in January that shows the West Side Walmart has created no new jobs or economic development. Brookins acknowledged that while the recession has emboldened his efforts, it has not broken any ground and the Chatham project remains on hold.

As a result, Walmart has shifted its attention to a massive mixed-use development on the Far South Side called Pullman Park. Covering hundreds of acres of a former Ryerson Steel factory (where Pullman train cars were once built), the development will include thousands of units of affordable housing and is considering Walmart as an anchor retail tenant. Unlike Chatham, the area is especially depressed.

Last Thursday, the Chicago Plan Commission approved plans for Pullman Park, though Faz-Huppert of Local 881 said that that was expected, as the commission is stocked with Daley appointees. (The mayor is generally supportive of Walmart). The bigger fight still remains at the city council, where it remains unclear whether the general mood toward Walmart has changed much. “I certainly think the fear is, if Walmart can get in there, they can get in anywhere,” Faz-Huppert said.

Matt Chaban