D.C. still waiting on Walmart

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Local,DC,Liz Farmer

Nearly two years ago, mega-retailer Walmart announced ambitious plans to take the District by storm, opening four stores in two years and bringing at least 1,200 jobs to some of the city's most economically underserved neighborhoods.

A year later, executives upped the ante, adding two more stores to the mix -- but omitted opening dates -- and increased the total impact to 1,800 retail jobs and 600 construction jobs across four D.C. wards where the unemployment rate ranges as high as 15 percent.

Now with the clock ticking down on 2012, just one of those six sites has begun construction, another has been reduced to a gaping hole in the middle of a retail corridor, and the remaining four are only in the permitting process.

"They have very limited experience going into big cities," said Dan Malouff, a planner and contributor to the development blog Greater Greater Washington. Walmart has already ventured into the urban space with smaller stores in city neighborhoods. But its undertaking in D.C., which includes incorporating stores into mixed-use developments, is still a new practice for a company that got its start in suburban mega-stores.

"I just don't think they knew how long things take here," Malouff said.

Earlier this year the company revised its original opening dates, pushing some back by at least one year and leaving others unassigned. Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo told The Washington Examiner this week that the company has had at least 200 meetings across the city with community members about the six-store plan. But he would not say whether those meetings are what slowed the original timeline.

"We're striking a balance between an unprecedented level of community engagement and an efficient and realistic construction schedule," he said.

In some communities, residents are still trying to stall some developments. The Georgia Avenue Walmart has seen the most resistance from residents there who still want to stop the plan even though a shuttered car dealership has been demolished in preparation for construction.

"It's far from a done deal," said Baruti Jahi, a Ward 4 resident and vocal opponent of the project. "We want business development there -- what we don't want is Walmart."

The site's developer, Foulger-Pratt, did not respond to requests for comment.

Residents who are expecting Walmarts in their communities have also voiced concerns about Walmart's average wage and full-time employment opportunities. Last fall, Walmart and Mayor Vincent Gray announced a community agreement that they said applied to all six stores across the District. The agreement included a $21 million investment from Walmart in local charities and the creation of a Community Advisory Committee to act as liaison between the retailer and residents.

Not every site has seen major pushback as the H Street mixed-use development by JBG Rosenfeld has generally been supported by its urban neighbors and slated to open in late 2013. When asked whether he thought Walmart's original goal of opening the H Street location and three other D.C. stores by 2012 was too ambitious, JBG spokesman Charlie Maier said, "we have not felt delayed at all."

Examiner intern Roxanne Turnbull contributed to this report.

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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