Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen doesn’t believe racism lies behind Walmart’s controversial decision to prohibit Metro Bus access to its new Cheektowaga store.
So he made up his own word to describe the bias he believes the retail giant is displaying: “cityism.”
He also calls the retail giant’s attitude “pure and complete arrogance.”
If Walmart sticks to its Friday decision to deny the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s request for a bus stop at the new store property on Walden Avenue, Pridgen says he will lead a protest march when it opens April 20. He may even take the No. 46/Walden bus to get there.
“I really expected the decision makers at Walmart to err on the side of caution and allow access,” Pridgen said. “It blew me away to read they totally refused access for ‘safety’ reasons.”
Pridgen, also pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street, said he has received phone calls from several other Buffalo clergymen and civic leaders who are seething over Walmart’s denial of the NFTA request. After the Arkansas-based company said the new store’s design lacks enough space for turns and safe parking lot operation for buses, Pridgen questions Walmart’s reasoning.
“If it’s for everybody’s safety, a simple change in the parking scheme would allow access for public transit,” he said. “I can’t understand how a multibillion-dollar company can’t make a simple change that makes sense for all its employees and customers.“
“I am questioning whether Walmart is like the Galleria mall in the past, and showing they do not want access for people who ride public transit from the city,” he added.
Indeed, the spectre of a 1995 fatal accident outside the Walden Galleria just west of the new Walmart on Walden Avenue continues to haunt the current situation. Pridgen said he led protests at the mall then, too, especially after some people charged racism over the lack of public transit access.
The then-infant son of Cynthia Wiggins, a 17-year-old run over by a dump truck while attempting to cross Walden Avenue to reach her job in the mall food court, was awarded a $2.55 million settlement following a 1999 State Supreme Court trial. Pridgen said he also protested at the time to the mall owners in Syracuse.
“I remember meeting with the folks in Syracuse; at least they would have a conversation,” he said, adding that Walmart has not answered any of his communications about the matter. Now he says he is outraged the company feels a bus stop on the street will prove not only adequate but safe.
“Talk about customer service?” he said. “I don’t know how it gets any worse than that.”
After the NFTA unsuccessfully sought a Walmart reply for six months about locating a bus shelter on the property, Walmart spokesman Phillip Keene said Friday that large public transit buses cannot safely operate in the Walden Avenue store’s parking lot and driveways. That means public transit shoppers will be discharged at new bus stops on Walden Avenue, where a traffic light will regulate pedestrian traffic.
“The bottom line is that it would be unsafe for us to allow access for buses to the parking lot,” Keene said then. “If we were to do it, we would have had to plan at the beginning (of the design process). That was not done at the time.
“There is no way we will put someone in danger when a bus can’t turn safely,” he added.
In the meantime, the Council president said he has fielded several phone calls from senior citizens and one pregnant woman with two children who asked how they can maneuver across the street to and from the store with kids and groceries.
“I just don’t understand how Walmart does not see that,” he said, questioning why it insists the NFTA should have sought to incorporate bus service to the property when design began almost two years ago.
“Sometimes their arrogance baffles me,” he said of Walmart. “How would people in the city know what’s going on in the suburbs?”
The NFTA, meanwhile, says it hasn’t given up on gaining access to the Walmart site. And it still anticipates a significant increase in ridership from employees and customers because of the new store.
Metro Bus has strengthened service on its No. 46 route serving the new store along Walden Avenue, which directly connects to Buffalo’s East Side. The authority said a significant increase in passenger totals is anticipated exclusively because of the new Walmart, and that’s why 12 trips have been added on Saturday and 11 on Sunday – up from zero trips on those days. Weekday service has been increased from 13 to 17 trips.