Walmart reverts to old ways in Mississippi
Despite Walmart’s professed openness to new ideas, the giant retail chain has quashed all efforts to have its new store in Pass Christian, Mississippi, function as part of a walkable, mixed use development.
The retailer opened a new 153,000 sq. ft. “supercenter” in October on the site of a Walmart store that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina four years earlier. The company listened to but rejected a proposal — from Pass Christian architect Robin Riley, New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff, and their partners — that called for the replacement store to be part of a 17-acre “Walmart Village” containing 300 to 500 townhouses and apartments.
This rejection of the urban-friendly format comes, ironically, as Walmart is stepping up efforts to locate stores in large US cities, according to a November 1 story in the Financial Times. Eduardo Castro Wright, chief executive of Walmart’s US stores, estimated that urban markets where the retailer is under-represented could yield billions of dollars of new sales. “We already have in our real estate program a robust plan to go after those,” he told analysts in October, the Financial Times reports. The retailer has only one store inside Chicago’s city limits and none in New York or Boston.
The Riley team presented three different development schemes for Pass Christian, all of them including a full-size store accompanied by housing that would be constructed above ground-level parking. The raised elevation of the housing would have given residents views of the Gulf of Mexico and protection from hurricane-driven water (see April 2006 New Urban News). In the end, the company decided on a single-use building elevated six feet higher than the one ruined by Katrina. No on-site housing is included.
The massing of the new store is slightly different from the typical Walmart, and has a Subway restaurant at the front of the building. Store manager Rob Richardson told the SunHerald that the building is the company’s latest prototype and “unlike any store on the Coast.” Riley when asked about the building by New Urban News, retorted, “It’s not different in its urban design. They’ve taken the same old dog and put a different dress on it. … Architecturally, it’s a horror.” A gas station is also being built on part of the property.
Riley said he and his partners had progressed so far as to have the company’s board of directors agree in principle that having hundreds of potential customers living adjacent to the store would be a good idea. Implementation, however, hinged on using Gulf Opportunity Zone (GO Zone) tax incentives — a federally sponsored set of rebuilding subsidies — to make the housing financially feasible. “Walmart’s accountants just couldn’t get their head around the notion of government participation,” said Riley. The likelihood of getting an innovative design was also hurt when Walmart CEO Lee Scott, who seemed impressed by the village idea, stepped down last year.
Ann Daigle, a Mississippi-based planning consultant, said that although Pass Christian recently adopted the SmartCode, “the mayor and city attorney let Walmart out of following the code.”
One remaining glimmer of hope, Daigle said, is that “only the building site itself was SmartCode-exempt — all the outparcels and land around it (owned by Walmart) are coded under SmartCode.” Consequently, it’s still possible that the overall development will eventually gain some urbanistically redeeming features.