For all the feigned outraged over Mayor Mike McGinn's recommendation to block a proposed Whole Foods in West Seattle (that evaluating a street vacation request for its impact on living wages would somehow be unfair to the project's developers), it is important to remember who we are dealing with: Jacksonville, FL based Lennar Multifamily Investors and Houston, TX based Weingarten Reality.
These aren't local businesses with the best interests of Seattle at heart. Lennar is a subsidiary of Lennar Corp, the nation's third largest home builder, and Weingarten develops and manages properties in 21 states, producing over half a billion dollars a year in revenue on its billions of dollars of holdings. These are companies in the business of making money, not making friends.
That said, Weingarten, which has taken the lead in defending the Whole Foods project, has made a point of attempting to portray itself as the good corporate citizen. "Through all of this and more, we are demonstrating a strong commitment to the community," the company insists in a statement posted to West Seattle Blog, "and West Seattle will benefit from a blighted area being re-developed into a thriving, pedestrian-friendly business and residential district."
Sounds downright neighborly of them, right? But judging from Weingarten's track record in other communities, West Seattleites might want to wash down these promises with a healthy dose of skepticism.
For example, in Benecia, California, civic leaders have reportedly grown increasingly distraught over the deteriorating state of the Southampton Shopping Center, which under Weingarten's management has seen small, locally owned businesses replaced with low scale national chains like Dollar Tree. "We're very frustrated with them," Benecia City Manager Brad Kilger said at an August 2012 council meeting. “We have serious questions about what the business plan is for that center."
Benecia Economic Development board member Ellen Kolowich was even more vocal, expressing her “outrage over the shabby treatment" of local merchants, whose woes, she said, were "just a symptom of a larger problem related to Weingarten’s management style,” which she described as “greed, lack of merchant support, questionable bargaining tactics.”
Weingarten reportedly hasn't treated its hometown of Houston much better, generating outrage from preservationists for stripping murals from a historic 1930's theater, and "modernizing" a classic Art Deco building into a generic looking shopping center. “Working with Weingarten,” one neighbor told a local newspaper, “is like working with the Devil.”
And when College Station, Texas attempted to block plans to anchor a new residential development with a Walmart, Weinstein proved unsympathetic to the concerns of the community, threatening to sue the city, ultimately costing taxpayers millions. "We've saddled the horse with Walmart, and that's the direction we're heading," said Weingarten senior vice-president Brent Mann. "At the end of the day, we own the land there, and we're committed to this project."
That's the sort of relentless pursuit of self-interest that should concern Weingarten's neighbors, particularly those near Promenade 23 in Seattle's Central District, where it has already been rumored that Weingarten is interested in replacing the Red Apple with a Walmart. Both Weingarten and Walmart deny that a deal is in the works, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. "We are evaluating all options," Weingarten spokesperson Carrie Murray told SeattlePI.com in October.
No doubt Weingarten and Lennar have the same property rights as everybody else, but as multi-billion dollar corporations, they are well capable of defending themselves. So rather than venting outrage over how unfair it is to raise the issue of living wages at this late stage in the street vacation review process, perhaps local politicians and pundits might want to expend their energies defending the interests of the local community.