Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has hit some bumps in its new urban strategy of sidestepping local opposition by opening smaller outlets in already entitled vacant stores.

In Burbank, local residents have filed a lawsuit seeking to force the city to do an environmental impact report and make traffic improvements before allowing Wal-Mart to open in a vacant store in the city’s congested Empire Center.

In L.A.’s Chinatown, opponents are planning to appeal last week’s decision by building officials to uphold permits for a Wal-Mart grocery in vacant ground-floor retail space.

“Opponents are trying anything they can to slow down Wal-Mart,” said Richard Lichtenstein, a former consultant for Wal-Mart and president of L.A. public relations agency Marathon Communications Inc.

But Lichtenstein said Wal-Mart’s strategy of going into vacant stores remains sound.

“It’s still far better to defend against the occasional lawsuit instead of having to go through a year or more of environmental approvals for a completely new store and still face lawsuits,” he said.

In Burbank, the City Council had voted 4 to 1 at its Feb. 21 meeting to accept a staff recommendation that Wal-Mart needed only permits for tenant improvements for a store on the former site of a Great Indoors home décor center.

But on May 4, three Burbank residents filed a lawsuit seeking to force the city to do an environmental impact report, and make street and traffic improvements before allowing Wal-Mart to open.

The residents contend in the lawsuit, which was filed by an attorney who also represents unions opposed to the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain, that the Wal-Mart store would generate much more customer traffic than previous tenant Great Indoors and that the city had failed to account for this.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Rachel Wall said in a statement that the lawsuit was merely a delaying tactic.

“This lawsuit is another attempt by a small number of individuals associated with special interest groups that want to stall access to affordable prices and economic opportunities including new jobs and additional tax revenue,” she said.

In Chinatown, the city of L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety officials in March approved a 33,000-square-foot grocery, called a neighborhood market, in a building at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues.

Union activists, led by the labor-allied Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, immediately filed a procedural challenge against the building department.

On May 10, the building department denied the challenge, saying the Wal-Mart proposal did not substantially alter the intended retail use of the premises.

James Elmendorf of Laane last week said his group intends to file an appeal later this month with the Planning Commission.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.