If one hot-button retail issue has dominated the New York real estate landscape in recent years, it’s been Walmart. The giant discount retailer has been trying to find a suitable location in the city for nearly a decade, but resistance has been fierce. The reasons for this resistance range from the big-box store’s labor practices to the perceived threat to local retailers.
The conflict came to a climax last year when Christine Quinn, democratic candidate for mayor, snarled, “As long as Walmart’s behavior remains the same, they’re not welcome in New York City.” Last week, The Commercial Observer spoke with some of New York’s leading retail brokers about the role of politics in retail real estate, what Walmart can do to ingratiate itself and which locations, if any, are suited to its footprint.
The Commercial Observer: With some New York politicians, including Christine Quinn, balking at the idea of Walmart coming to New York, do you think government should play a role or have a significant voice in real estate issues?
I think they will always have input. We will always have people that are pro retail and others that are not. Personal views come into how they try to control the growth. I know all the arguments for and against Walmart. I think if you talk to the developers, who are on both sides—if you talk to someone as smart as Related, for instance—they understand politics has a role, but they also understand the value of having the 800-pound gorilla on the street.
Look at when we brought in K-Mart [to Manhattan]. A few months later, everyone was thanking us, because it brought traffic and great advertising dollars to the area. I also think that at this time, more than any time, we can put a lot of people to work. Consumers want access to the same types of products at the same prices; it is important to give them choices. It is not much different than our own homegrown Fairway growing in the city.
This is value-oriented shopping. We’ve done it with fashion. Now we can do it with Walmart.
What does Walmart need to do be become a more attractive option for New York?
I was on a panel with [George Kinnard, vice president of realty at Walmart]. He said they were looking at structuring some special-type stores for each neighborhood. They could do something called an express store, which not only wouldn’t be as large, but it would have a lot of services: delivery and pickup to minimize the impact on the neighborhood. They need to provide access to all the products but make it very user-friendly.
They need to do what everybody does—kiss up to all the community boards. There’s always going to be the naysayers, but they need to do what fast food did: contribute to the neighborhood.
Say they went into the Bronx or part of Queens that needed development, or maybe they donate a park. Maybe they do a co-op with schools to hire students. This is a city very, very focused on education. That type of incentive is one way to endear themselves to the community.
Are there any potential locations that jump out?
In my opinion, anywhere they would go—whether it’s all the way north or all the way east—people would find their way there. They have the logistics and operational part to figure out. They don’t need to be at the corner at 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. They could be at the corner of 11th Avenue and 11th Street.
Is there a time line?
They’ve been working on this for years—working on it constantly. I can’t predict it. We don’t know the site and we don’t know the developer. It depends: if its Vornado or Related, it would move faster. It’s going to go well, depending on who they make the deal with.
I have nothing against Walmart coming here, and I don’t even shop the store. I have represented properties that they have visited, but I haven’t represented them. They’re focused on this. You’re not going to wear them out. They’ve got a bottomless budget.
If they want to do it, they’re going to spend the money to figure it out.