The Apes of Wrath

One hot day this past summer, an owner of King's Land Seafood, the dim sum mecca at Alameda Square, called in a panic after she spotted a utility truck cutting into the pavement right outside her place. This was it, she said. They were seizing her property. The city was killing her business.

Her fear lost nothing in the translation.

As it turned out, the city was repairing a water main broken during soil testing. But by now, the tenants of Alameda Square -- a strip mall with enough parking for Invesco Field (if it happened to be located somewhere other than 2200 West Alameda Avenue), inhabited by a handful of Asian restaurants, a burrito joint, a nail salon, a beauty-supply business, a liquor store, two markets -- had been living under a shadow for close to two years and had earned the right to be suspicious. King's Land alone had lost dozens of wedding receptions, its primary moneymaker, to venues whose futures looked less cloudy. And although a first attempt to turn the twenty-acre shopping center into a superstore had fallen apart in 2002 after tenants complained and two of the property's owners decided to cut a different deal, by last summer it was back in the works. This long-depressed part of Denver, a mix of Hispanic and Asian businesses, of longtime residents and barely arrived immigrants, could get its $42 million project -- if the city would just condemn one lousy acre of land. Use eminent domain to seize private property on behalf of the biggest corporation in America, the largest retailer in the world. Wal-Mart.

The Chinese New Year doesn't start until next week -- this will be the Year of the Monkey -- but the monkey business at Alameda Square may finally be over.

Last month, John Huggins, director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, told a meeting of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority that it was the city's strong preference not to use eminent domain to pave the way for Wal-Mart at Alameda Square. Not to condemn private property for this "public purpose" -- no matter how cheaply the 4,750-store chain sold those loss-leader DVD players before Christmas.

And today, Huggins repeats that sentiment: "We are trying to put together an approach to the development that would not involve eminent domain."

For that matter, the development may not even involve Wal-Mart. Other companies could be lured by the tax-increment financing allowed at the site, allowed since DURA designated the area a blighted, urban-renewal district back in 1991. If Wal-Mart were to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter here, under TIF it would be able to use sales-tax revenues collected at the 209,000-square-foot store through 2016 toward paying off the project -- a boon estimated at over $10 million by just about everyone, and up to $25 million by some Sam-slammers. But other developers would be eligible to apply for this tax break, too.

Daniel Yim, for example. Since 1999, he's owned Alameda Square's most hotly disputed acre, on which sits a very defunct Organ Grinder pizza parlor. Yim has been depicted as a spoiler in this deal -- holding out for bigger bucks when the other two owners, Khanh Vu and Hamid Simantob, had agreed to sell their collective nineteen acres to Wal-Mart for $12.5 million -- but he insists that's not true. In fact, he wants to develop the property himself, and he's filed the paperwork with the appropriate city departments in order to do so. "We only have control of our corner," he says. "We can tear down the building, put up 20,000 square feet of retail." His plans call for at least fourteen or fifteen units in that space, with the smallest just over 1,000 square feet. And that's no superstore.

"We've pretty much decided to build," he says. "Hopefully, the project will be completed this year. I've been working on it two and a half years already. Everything should be finalized in two weeks."

Yim isn't the only one with plans for that area. The AFL-CIO -- which regards Wal-Mart as slightly worse than the devil incarnate -- and King Soopers have even approached the city regarding the possibility of putting a grocery store/affordable-housing development there. "We're exploring all options," says Huggins. One involves encouraging Yim to consider other configurations, freeing up that corner for a big project, perhaps even a Wal-Mart. But not if it involves condemnation of anyone's property, a move that the Denver City Council would have to approve, a move that makes members squeamish even before the legislature takes up state senator Shawn Mitchell's bill that proposes to restrict local government's use of eminent domain. Before the Colorado Supreme Court rules on the legality of the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority's desire to condemn part of privately owned Arvada Lake -- for a Wal-Mart.

This corner of Denver doesn't need a Wal-Mart at the price of eminent domain. Not, perhaps, at any price.

I made my first pilgrimage to a Wal-Mart this fall. That was after the Alameda Square proposal was back on the table, where anti-Wal-Mart activists were doing their best to put a fork in it, to kill the deal by smothering it with facts about the company's low pay (an average of $8.23 an hour for sales clerks) and poor working conditions (conditions that have kept a few local attorneys very, very busy with class-action suits).

I hit the shiny new Wal-Mart on East Hampden by Kennedy Golf Course, a supersized monument to gluttony, a bazaar so bizarre that I was overwhelmed by the insane options around me. I wound up buying a twelve-pack of Coke and a gallon of milk -- two products that residents of the area surrounding Alameda Square had complained were not available at the Asian markets -- as well as a giant beef stick, which should be unavailable anywhere on this planet. And then I got out of there as fast as I could, barely pausing to watch the security guard wanding an entire family that was apparently suspected of pilfering a pack of gum and a stuffed animal.

It's true that you can't buy milk or Coke at Pacific Ocean, a ten-year-old supermarket at the edge of the sea of asphalt that marks Alameda Square. You can buy pig's nose, and pig's blood, and Chinese candy, and Asian dishes and statues, and every kind of tea and noodle imaginable.

Clearly, this is not the place to "join the low-carb revolution." You can do that right across Alameda at 7-Eleven, where a gallon of milk costs exactly seven cents more than it did at Wal-Mart, and a twelve-pack of Coke costs less.

When development does finally fill this cement pond at Alameda and Zuni Street -- and fill it will -- some of the tenants will move. They may move as a group -- perhaps to the old RTD bus barn on Santa Fe, site of the proposed Asian Pavilions -- or off into the neighborhood, one by one. Some could even move into Yim's place, if it develops as he promises. There's room for the liquor store, and Von's Nails, and the Asian beauty college optimistic enough to hang a sign still boasting about its "grand opening" and realistic enough to embrace the neighborhood with another sign that reads "hamblamos en espanol y en ingles."

For now, in the Year of the Monkey, Alameda Square is open for business. And the New Year's feast at King's Land is in no eminent danger.


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