The proposed Walmart on New York Avenue NE has made some progress from a terrible initial design, such as moving buildings toward the street, improving public space, and adding a Capital Bikeshare station. However, many questions remain, including how the development will deal with the day laborers that it will almost certainly attract.
Currently in Ward 5, there is a robust market for day laborers in the parking lot shared by the Home Depot, Giant, and TJ Maxx. Everyday there are dozens of guys hanging out in the parking lot and on the edges of the property, looking for work.
A few years ago, there was a push, admirably led by Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr., to build a “Multicultural Training & Employment Center”. This effort died on the vine when faced with opposition from the community in and around Brentwood.
That’s highly unfortunate, given that the problem of unorganized people standing around the parking lot persists today. The center would have brought, among other goals, “An organized system linking contractors and individuals seeking work from contractors at the Home Depot site.”
Given the rumors we’ve heard of Lowe’s sharing the site with Walmart (and the people you can already spot selling bottled water and flowers in the median at New York Ave NE and Bladensburg or Montana), are accommodations being made to give these people a place to look for work with dignity?
It doesn’t have to be a palace, but a few resources, including a bathroom and a way to get out of the way of bad weather, would probably go pretty far toward making the day laborer scene more appealing for the stores, customers, and the day laborers.
And there are people who will be against offering any accommodation to day laborers, based on the fact that many are in the United States illegally. While it may be true that many are here illegally, they are also still people, and ignoring the problem will not make fewer day laborers congregate around places where contractors shop. If some accommodation is made for them, it would provide a huge benefit to the customers and neighbors, not just the laborers themselves.
It can be difficult and dangerous to navigate your car around people loitering in a parking lot and unattractive to have dozens of people congregate around the perimeter of the property. We can bury our heads in the sand if we’re determined to do so a second time, but it won’t make our problems go away.
Councilmember Thomas now chairs the DC Council’s Economic Development Committee. He has helped make Walmart’s second attempt to open a store in DC much less adversarial than its first. So will Thomas make sure that day laborers are thought of if and when this new development is built? Will he work with the developers to make sure they include shelter and resources for the day laborers who will almost certainly congregate on the premises? Will the developer pay for the center or will the DC government be asked to pay (as it was proposed in 2007, though the funds were never used)?