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San Diego is often identified as a “City of Villages.” It derives its character from local business districts and diverse neighbors tied together through a filigree of natural resources. Our beaches, canyons, deserts and mountains encase our identity, and we loathe being the southern California expansion of Los Angeles.

Development decisions made in an insular and misinformed manner often endanger our quality of life, often without public input or awareness, hence the need for information of the impacts of superstores at the time that they are approved. These superstores are big-box retail, the size of at least two football fields, and devote a large part of their store to selling groceries. The Ordinance to Protect Small and Neighborhood Businesses simply asks questions on the benefits and impacts of superstores during their regular permit approval process and allows the city to deny the permit if the development is inconsistent with the general plan.

In our literature review of these superstore developments, we found the following environmental and community impacts:

  • Superstores have significantly higher trip generation rates and traffic, as residents have to commute longer to meet their basic needs.
  • Superstores redistribute the sales from existing stores, leading to blight of vacant storefronts. Within a given market area, consumers do not spend more on groceries. So there is no net gain, no new jobs and no new revenue.
  • Superstores are typically big boxes bobbing in a sea of asphalt parking lots that are often inconsistent with communities that seek pedestrian-friendly retail.

Even more egregious is the impact of superstores on working families. It is no secret that superstores consistently pay lower wages than traditional grocery stores, depressing consumer expenditures in the local community. Studies have found a negative impact on poverty rates to be a characteristic of counties that have Wal-Mart stores. In a study published in Social Science Quarterly (2006), counties that had more Wal-Mart stores in 1987 had a higher poverty rate ten years later than did counties that started the period with fewer or no Wal-Mart stores. The study also found that counties that added Wal-Mart stores during the decade experienced higher poverty rates and greater usage of food stamps than counties where Wal-Mart did not build, all other things being equal.

Is there any benefit to superstores? Some claim that the real dinosaurs are the mom-and-pop establishments that charge too much for your shampoo. They claim that consumers need to be given a “choice” between every existing brand of cereal. There are also others who just want to get the cheapest can of milk.

These are all good reasons why you would want information on whether the new superstore will impact you, positively or negatively. Would the new store wipe out your existing choices on cereal or add new choices? Would it get rid of the businesses that are annoying or those maintaining the vibrancy of local streets? Would it create a ghost town or traffic congestion? Would it create a monopoly that would make your cheap milk not so cheap after a year, or would you have to have to spend a gallon of gas for every gallon of milk? Would it create vacant stores with graffiti and encourage crime, or would it put an existing eyesore to better use? Would it keep San Diego a network of communities that are unique in character, or would it sweep us all into one giant megalopolis with one destination for all our needs?

Socrates was fond of asking questions. He was not your typical Greek philosopher that professed to know all the answers. Rather, he asked and he asked, peeling away at fruit of knowledge. He is reputed to have said: “There is only one good — knowledge, and one evil — ignorance.” For knowledge is our common defense against invalid beliefs and impediments to inquiry for better life. We simply want to know, hence we ask.

Murtaza Baxamusa lives in La Jolla and is the Research and Policy Director for the Center on Policy Initiatives.

Murtaza Baxamusa

Murtaza Baxamusa works for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corp. and volunteered as a special policy adviser for Bob Filner.

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