Thursday, December 5, 2013

When planners insist, Walmart gets urban

Multistory Walmart in Washington, in a mixed-use building.

Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington -- and a keynote speaker here in June for the RealityCheck regional planning exercise -- sends along a photo of the new, urban-styled Walmart that opened Wednesday in Washington, on Seventh Street NW. "It shows what Wal-Mart can do, if you push them," he writes.

In a later email, he said, "Wal-Mart* wants to be in hot urban markets like DC because cities are the only place left in America with more spending power than stores." Because Walmart's intention to build in Washington was controversial, he wrote, "The City Planning office pushed hard for good urban design."

The huge retail chain has proposed six stores in D.C., McMahon writes. Two opened Wednesday. The other is on Georgia Avenue. A rendering is below. While the Seventh Street store has housing above the retail, the second one is single-use. but at least it's sitting on the sidewalk like a respectable city building, and has parking underground rather than splayed out on an asphalt parking lot.

Now, just to get you thinking, just below is the new(ish) Walmart that opened near UNC Charlotte on North Tryon
Street north of University City Boulevard. The tract had been zoned for a conventional suburban-style shopping center since before the city even had plans for its light rail transit line or passed the transit tax in 1998. 

Bing maps photo
Despite knowing by 1998 that light rail would eventually be heading up North Tryon Street, the land was never rezoned for transit-oriented style development. Nor was other land along North Tryon Street.

Just a thought: The entrance to Walmart off North Tryon Street is roughly 1,500 feet (.28 mile) from the planned light rail station at McCullough Drive. It's generally accepted by planners that the most important areas for transit-oriented development are those within a half-mile of transit stations; a quarter-mile walk is generally considered as far as most people will willingly walk. (Although I question that convention wisdom.)

Today, any piece of property if it already holds the city's old-style commercial zoning, even if it is right smack-dab at a transit station, could sprout another Walmart-style building. And that does not mean DC-Walmart-style.

I just thought you'd like to know.


* Copy-editors and punctuation enthusiasts may wonder why I switch from Walmart to Wal-Mart and back? Two reasons. First, the stores are Walmart. The corporate entity is Wal-Mart Stores Inc.  Second, I was directly quoting McMahon's email, and he called it "Wal-Mart."