Walmart enters Washington in drive to open stores in big cities

One development would place hundreds of apartments above a store, but other projects emphasize parking, not pedestrian-friendly streets. Chicago and New York also face Wal-Mart campaigns.

Author: 
Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

Note: See also our commentary today and a trade publication story on Walmart's plans.

For seven straight quarters, Walmart has watched as the revenue from its US stores declined. Though the Bentonville, Arkansas, company retains its rank as the world’s largest retailer, operating in 16 countries, it needs to do something different if it’s to regain a healthy sales trajectory in the US.

One solution: Enter the big cities, the final American frontier. The company, which last July had fewer than four dozen locations in large US cities, is now making plans to open its first four stores in Washington, DC, in 2012 and to expand its Chicago presence beyond a current solitary location. Walmart is also pressing, despite opposition, to enter all five boroughs of New York.

What a Walmart presence might mean can be seen in Washington, where the company is pursuing varied design approaches for stores containing 76,000 to 126,000 square feet — substantially smaller than Walmart’s typical 185,000 sq. ft. supercenter.

In terms of enhancing the city’s physical character, by far the best of the Washington proposals is a 76,000 sq. ft. store that’s scheduled to break ground late this year in a rapidly redeveloping area west of Union Station. This project, at 1st Street and H Street NW, has been designed by MV + A Architects of Bethesda, Maryland, so that Walmart will occupy the second level of a six-story building — allowing much of the ground floor to be occupied by small, local retailers.

“We liked it a lot,” says Harriet Tregoning, director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning. Beneath the discount store will be four or five local shops, totaling 10,000 sq. ft., and three levels of underground parking. Above the Walmart will be four stories of apartments — 315 rental units, many wrapping around two rectangular courtyards. The entire complex will occupy four acres — roughly a fifth as much land as a typical supercenter.

A glassy, transparent corner will contain an escalator taking customers up to the Walmart. The small ground-floor stores lining the sidewalks will “create a more intimate pedestrian experience on H street, the primary commercial corridor in the area,” says Jay Klug, vice president of JBGR, one of three development firms involved in the project. The building’s exterior of red brick with reddish-brown mortar is meant to complement the nearby Government Printing Office — a massive old complex beloved among Washingtonians. “We use a lot of form and color to conceal the size of the Walmart,” says Jim Voelzke, a partner in MV + A.

The developers — JBG, JBGR, and the Bennett Group — did not have to negotiate with the City, since the store is a by-right development. Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth describes JBG as “one of the leading transit-oriented developers in the region.” MV + A is known for skillfully fitting Whole Foods and other retailers into urban locations.

The project will add to Washington’s grid by extending a currently incomplete part of 1st Street. “That’s important for connectivity and for our property,” says Klug.

Second-best among Washington’s future Walmarts is a 104,000 sq. ft. store proposed for the  Brightwood section in the city’s northwest quadrant. Developer Foulger-Pratt Company intends to place that store on four acres previously occupied by a Chevrolet dealership. The project will not contain housing or offices, and the building will be only one story high, but it will likely come to the street, which is a plus, and its parking will be underground, another plus.

“It’s on the biggest bus line in the region,” Cort says of its location on Georgia Avenue, The Coalition for Smarter Growth is concerned that the front of the building — the project’s design has yet to be released — should be “not just a big long wall.” Cort suggests asking smaller retailers to have stores there, enlivening the street. This is a by-right project, so Walmart and the Foulger-Pratt will have considerable independence from city planners.

Urban virtues lacking

The other two DC stores appear, at this point, to possess few urban design virtues. On East Capitol Street near the Maryland border, A& R Development intends to build a one-level Walmart on an 12-acre site currently owned by Washington’s Housing Authority. Some parking would be underneath the building, but most would be in parking lots. Tregoning is not satisfied with how the building relates to the street. “We’re asking that everything come to the street,” she says. Because the project is subject to City review, the design may change significantly.

The fourth Walmart would be a 126,000 sq. ft. second-floor store, sitting on top of another big-box retailer on New York Avenue in northeast Washington. Essentially, this project is a 15-acre power center, with two bank pads, one-story and 3-story retail buildings, 1,215 garage parking spaces, and 173 surface parking spots — arranged in ways that do little to address the street or create a coherent public realm. Developer Rick Walker’s WV Urban Developments surprised the Office of Planning by submitting plans without discussing them with city planners first — not an encouraging sign.

One early lesson from Washington’s Walmart experience: Cities need to get their zoning and parking standards in order before the big-box retailers arrive. Even the best of the four DC projects is envisioned as having 3 to 4 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of retail — far more than the Coalition for Smarter Growth thinks appropriate in redeveloping areas blessed with plentiful transit service.

It’s worth noting that only 2 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. of retail were built a few years ago for a 500,000 sq. ft. three-story retail complex containing a Target, Best Buy, and numerous other stores near a Metro station in the redeveloping Columbia Heights neighborhood. The retail has succeeded, yet much of the project’s parking has gone unused, says Cort.

Why, then, is so much parking envisioned in the 1st and H Streets mixed-use project? Partly, it’s a result of specifics of the site, says Klug. But another reason is that “Walmart is very focused on providing ample parking for the retail,” according to Klug. “They think most of their customers will be coming by car.”

Cort thinks that the City should be pushing developers in areas like this to institute Transportation Demand Management systems, which reduce driving and improve the pedestrian environment. “Taxi vouchers,” for example, could reduce the volume of vehicles being parked, she says. The DC Department of Transportation and Office of Planning have discussed revising the city’s parking standards — establishing “parking maximums” — but no decision has been made.
Chicago and New York

In Chicago, the first Walmart store, which opened in 2006 in the largely African-American Austin neighborhood, was a mundane, automobile-oriented design. The next two Chicago stores are expected to be similarly auto-oriented. In New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is welcoming Walmart (saying “you should let the market decide”) but where many City Council members are resistant, it’s possible that the company will follow Washington’s example: develop standard, sprawling stores with abundant parking in lower-density districts and agree to more compact, mixed-use projects in a few higher-density locations.

The New York Times reported Feb. 12 that in New York, Walmart “is focusing on sites that require no special approval, as opposed to those that would need a green light from the City Council.” The company is looking closely at distressed parts of the city, where a current dearth of retailers, fresh food, and jobs makes Walmart look like a new-found friend.

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