By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The store would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, critics agree, if only it were built a few blocks away--on vacant land that's already zoned for retail development. But if Albertson's moves into a residential area, 25 years of land-use planning in the neighborhood may be for naught. Like a crack in a dike, a zoning change could cause a river of additional commercial development to flow into the area and flood homes with light, traffic, and noise pollution, opponents say.
"It's a very large store, and historically very large stores have been retail anchors for commercial areas," Horsey says. "It is expected that if an Albertson's went in there, that there would be corollary retail going in around it."
Coker, Albertson's hired zoning gun, dismisses those concerns.
"I don't think there is any statistical evidence that that occurs at all. I don't think anybody has brought any credible evidence to the table that that does happen," says Coker, who adds that the Albertson's project is fully consistent with neighborhood preservation plans.
"The things that make up neighborhoods are not just homes of single and multifamily varieties," Coker says. "It's everything that makes up a neighborhood: convenient shopping, churches, recreational opportunities. A grocery store is clearly one of the things that should be included as part of the residential mix."
There is no evidence that other businesses are waiting in the shadows, eager to follow Albertson's massive footsteps into East Dallas. There are only casual observations that other Albertson's stores often tend to be surrounded by a sea of video stores, dry cleaners, and other shops.
Nevertheless, Albertson's anticipated that it would face neighborhood resistance, but Rissing figured he could overcome the opposition.
"We probably did not anticipate that they would, across the board, come out against it--group after group after group--and that's unfortunate," he says.
It's not the first time Albertson's calculations have come up short.
The Times-Picayune, New Orleans' daily newspaper, described a May 12 news conference in that city as a "preemptive strike" designed to build momentum for a proposed Albertson's store before the city's planning officials could even review the project for consideration.
New Orleans is a predominantly black city, led by a black mayor and several powerful black council members. So the news conference was something of a savvy public relations effort to ward off criticism of the proposed store--a 62,000-square-foot box that would be located just off of lower St. Charles Avenue in a part of town known as Central City.
St. Charles Avenue is a National Landmark Historic District known for its mansions and as the home of the nation's oldest running streetcar line. The Central City neighborhood that it borders is predominantly black, and very poor.
On May 12, the city's mayor, two city council members, and a group of Central City activists gathered in front of the First Emanuel Baptist Church to announce their support for the store. The event featured "rousing hymns and snatches of preaching" by the Rev. Charles Southall and Bishop Robert Blakes, pastors, respectively, of First Emanuel and the New Home Missionary Baptist Church, according to the Times-Picayune.
The pastors were there to support the store because they believe it will bring sorely needed jobs and economic growth to their blighted neighborhood, but their presence wasn't purely an act of good will carried out on behalf of their low-income neighbors. In exchange for helping build support for Albertson's, each church had been given a 5 percent share in St. Charles Ventures, L.L.C., the group of developers attempting to lure a grocery store onto the property.
The pastors dismissed accusations that their support was for sale. "Thirty thousand dollars can't buy me," Southall told the local paper.
David Richardson, a New Orleans attorney representing the ministers, says that how you see the deal is a matter of interpretation.
"You can think of it as buying them off or making them partners," Richardson says. "The developers and Albertson's tried to be inclusive by bringing members of the communities into the partnership. This is one of the few significant capital ventures in New Orleans that's voluntarily joined in by the black and white communities."
The argument doesn't fly with Albertson's opponents. The decision to cut the ministers in on the deal and lasso political support as a preemptive strike is just the kind of dirty politics New Orleans is known for, says William Borah, a New Orleans attorney who is representing a group of neighborhood preservationists opposed to the store.
"The system is chaotic, and it's corrupt, and special interests dominate it, and whoever gets the ear of a councilman or a mayor, that's the project," Borah says.
To Borah and his clients, the big-box building style will turn back the clock on preservation efforts by ushering in a new era of suburban-style sprawl that's inappropriate for a historic district--an argument virtually identical to that made by the neighborhood organizations opposed to the proposed East Dallas Albertson's.
"We say New Orleans has planning by surprise. You want to know what the plan for New Orleans is, you read the daily Times-Picayune. That's the plan," Borah says. "This has had disastrous impact over the years. If you're in a preservation community here, you battle one project after the other, historically."