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Walmart abandons Somerville, Watertown plans

Protesters lined Arsenal Street in Watertown in early May to protest a proposed Walmart.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Protesters lined Arsenal Street in Watertown in early May to protest a proposed Walmart.

Walmart Stores Inc. said it is abandoning efforts to build a grocery market in Somerville and a Supercenter in Watertown, saying the projects no longer make financial sense for the world’s largest retailer.

“One of the primary deciding factors on any given site - whether it’s in an urban, suburban, or rural market - is that it makes sense from a business perspective and contributes to our bottom line,’’ said Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo. “In the case of the Somerville and Watertown sites, we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.’’

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The Arkansas chain had not submitted formal plans for either store, but its proposals had split members of those communities. In Somerville, Walmart wanted to open a Neighborhood Market, a roughly 34,000-square-foot grocery on the site of a former Circuit City store on Mystic Avenue at the edge of the Assembly Square shopping district. In Watertown, the retailer was looking to construct a 90,000-square-foot store on Arsenal Street.

Somerville’s mayor, Joseph A. Curtatone, said he was disappointed Walmart will not build the grocery after all, adding that he and other city officials “were highly sold’’ on the type of store the retailer ultimately proposed - a smaller “urban style’’ market with fresh produce.

“They’re the number one retailer in the world, and we’re flattered that they thought about investing in Somerville,’’ Curtatone said. But “their interest in this particular site has ended. They are no longer interested in this building.’’

Watertown council president Mark S. Sideris said he believes a strong negative reaction from residents influenced the retailer’s decision to put aside its plans. Last month about 50 protesters staged a rally to oppose the proposed Walmart in Watertown, raising concerns about increased traffic, noise, and threats to small business owners. “There are a number of ‘No Walmart, No Big Boxes’ signs on people’s lawns at this point,’’ Sideris said. “The movement was growing.’’

Al Norman, a Greenfield-based anti-Walmart activist who runs a grass-roots organization known as Sprawl-Busters, said he helped organize Watertown’s opposition to the retailer. Norman has been fighting a Walmart in his area for the past several years.

“I said basically, ‘Put the pressure on as tight as you can because these are not appropriate [Walmart] locations,’ ’’ Norman said, applauding Walmart’s departure from both municipalities. “Always happy to see Walmart leave.’’

But Restivo, the Walmart spokesman, said the anti-Walmart battles were not the reason the company pulled out, pointing out the company overcame similar opposition to new stores in Lynn and Salem.

“The campaigns in those two communities weren’t unlike those campaigns in Lynn or Salem,’’ said Restivo. The retailer has 47 Supercenters and discount stores in Massachusetts as well as two Sam’s Clubs. Walmart also has a Supercenter under construction in Raynham and will break ground on a Supercenter in Saugus in the fall.

But the Neighborhood Market, the company’s line of mid-sized, low-cost grocery stores aimed in urban markets, has been a hard sell in the region.

Last year Boston officials declined to endorse a plan to build a Neighborhood Market at the former Bartlett bus yard, a shuttered MBTA maintenance facility near Dudley Square, where food-shopping options are few. City officials were concerned that the Walmart grocery would undercut local businesses.

Despite the opposition, Restivo said the chain continues to pursue opportunities in greater Boston, including for a Neighborhood Market store.

“We continue to think our stores can be part of the solution in the Greater Boston area and will continue to evaluate local opportunities to create jobs and expand access to affordable food,’’ Restivo said.

Kevin Griffin, head of Griffin Publishing, a Duxbury firm that produces industry market analyses, said he believes Walmart will continue to view the Northeast as a “major target,’’ but will find it challenging to grow here because its stores require a lot of space.

“The reality of the real estate market in New England is one that’s just not very favorable to them,’’ Griffin said. “It’s very well-established, it’s high density, and there’s not a lot of real estate in Walmart’s sweet spot.’’

At the same time, Griffin said, Walmart and other grocery chains are being challenged by drug and dollar stores that have been expanding their retail selections to include more food items.

“The old days of going to the grocery store - they continue to be under assault by all these secondary formats that keep nipping away at them,’’ he said.

Shirley Leung of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.
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