What should we do about Big Boxes?

The County Council is debating a proposal to address the impacts from large commercial retail operations or “big boxes”. The discussion has been prompted by Council President Valerie Ervin’s bill that would require new retailers with more than 75,000 square feet of space to negotiate with community groups prior to opening. I have heard from a lot of constituents about this issue. I’d like to share my thoughts with you and hear what you think.

Big box retailers are very profitable. In 2010, Wal-Mart earned $17 billion in after-tax net income. That same year, Home Depot earned $3.3 billion, Target earned $2.9 billion and Best Buy earned $1.4 billion in after-tax net income.

At the same time, a significant number of studies have found that big boxes have had detrimental effects on wages, employment, small businesses, public health care costs and traffic. I believe that some big box retailing necessitates additional community protections. That is why I agreed to co-sponsor the Council President’s bill.

The bill requires incoming big box retailers to negotiate “community benefit agreements” with at least three community groups. The bill would seem to create the likelihood that certain community groups would get “benefits” as a result of a big box coming in. For example, a new swimming pool or support for a library in one community, or, elsewhere, local hiring preferences. It is unclear whether the bill would actually result in any benefits for the communities, however, as the only requirement is negotiation, not agreement.

Community benefits agreements are not the only proposal for addressing big box impacts. The question is, what problems are we trying to solve?

Two problems I am very concerned about are the wages and benefits issues facing workers; and the big box impacts that affect our ability to create great places to live.

On the first topic, the federal National Labor Relations Act prevents local governments from directly regulating wages and benefits in purely private-sector circumstances. But when county funding is involved, the county has a right to attach conditions to that funding. The county already requires construction contractors on county projects to pay prevailing wages. It also requires county-employed service contractors to pay living wages to their employees. Perhaps recipients of county economic development grants, loans and incentives should be required to pay living wages and health benefits. That would make sure that county money does not subsidize low-wage job creation, which will not sustain our quality of life.

On the second issue, I am concerned that big boxes in our commercial+retail+residential areas will undermine the core vision of a community designed according to principles of housing opportunity, walkability and public transportation.

The county has abundant powers to regulate land use through its zoning authority. In 2004, the county passed a zoning text amendment requiring combination retail + grocery stores with more than 120,000 square feet to obtain a special exception to operate. The Board of Appeals is empowered to make requirements on noise, lighting, traffic remediation, buffers, parking, signs and other issues. The county’s Planning Board can also address similar issues in its planning and approval process, and is well suited to address the challenges that big boxes pose for community building.

I believe we need to reexamine these regulations for big box stores. The fact that the proposed Aspen Hill Wal-Mart is planned to be 118,000 square feet – a bare 2,000 square feet below the county’s current threshold for a special exception – argues that some sort of reevaluation of our requirements may be in order.

Another Wal-Mart on Rockville Pike would be situated one-third of a mile from the Twinbrook Metro. This location is prime real estate for our continuing efforts on the Pike to build a first class community where you would want to live, shop and work. I share the view, articulated by my council colleague Roger Berliner, that we must develop the Pike consistent with the principles of walkability, with a public-transportation centered strategy. The Wal-Mart as proposed would not accomplish that.

We have to strike a balance between providing the consumer choices our residents deserve and mitigating the impact of huge commercial establishments on our environment, mobility and labor markets. I’d like to get to that balance and I think we can get it done.

But I’d like to hear what you think. How would you do it? What ideas would you put on the table? Please let me know by commenting here or emailing me. Thanks!