Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Walmart's entry into DC as a textbook example of how key issues get overlooked when you focus on the wrong things

strat·a·gem (strătˈə-jəm)

  1. A military maneuver designed to deceive or surprise an enemy.
  2. A clever, often underhanded scheme for achieving an objective.


I have been writing about this a lot, that people's antipathy about Walmart generally, or the need for jobs, or developer's desire to make some money off a property with little investment, in a bad economy can mean that key concerns get overlooked and ignored.

Washington City Paper has a nice piece, "A Tale of Two City Councils," on how DC elected officials have mostly rolled over on Walmart--a good example of my saying that the great thing about Washington for developers is that we sell ourselves for so little, but also probably reflects a recognition that Walmart chose sites where the zoning allows their entry "as a matter of right," and chose sites where the developers were hungry for any project, as long as it means money coming in.

Permitted use: means a use defined by a Land Development Code (zoning/building regulations), listed as a permitted use in the use regulations for a particular district, and authorized as a matter of right when conducted in accordance with the requirements of the Code.

-- Summary of DC Zoning Districts and permitted uses

To be honest, I don't care one way or the other about Walmart's being in business in DC.

Well, I do, because it is a sign of a further chaining up and a reproduction of the retail and commercial landscape that has some negative impact on the local economy--more profits are repatriated outside of the local economy, the economic multiplier impact of the retail sector locally is diminished because chains buy fewer goods and services locally, etc.

But since a Walmart is a permitted use in the locations that they've chosen, it's not worth my time to be oppositional.

Mostly what concerns me is how stores such as Walmart are integrated into the city, into the urban form. That's what I wrote about in an op-ed in the Washington Business Journal, "Temper Walmart Glee With Planning."

Although yes as a nearby resident (I live 3/4 of a mile from the Georgia Avenue site), I am particularly concerned that accommodating every day 6,000 trips to the store on Georgia Avenue and 6,000 trips back home, mostly by automobile, will be difficult, given the configuration of the current street network and the developer's proposal on how to handle this.

Even if the parking is underground--that's urban, right?--the basic question is will the stores basically be suburban--big and single use projects, and customers will come and go mostly by the automobile--but by happenstance in the city, or will they be urban--part of a mixed use development that maximizes the utilization of the entire site and the potential for development above the second floor, and will most customers come and go on foot, by transit, and by bicycle.

Look at the difference between this Home Depot in DC, versus this one on South Halsted in Chicago (the latter photo is by Steve Pinkus).
Home Depot mosaic

Home Depot, Halsted Street, Lincoln Park, Chicago

Obviously, this Home Depot was integrated into the urban fabric of Chicago in an urban fashion, while the Home Depot in DC was developed with what we would call a "suburban" orientation--parking fronted, single story, where most patrons are expected to drive.

Now, some people will say that the area where the store was built was just a parking lot. True, but that doesn't mean it should not have been developed in a manner that extends urbanism rather than repudiates it. After all, DC is a city, and the site is adjacent to the subway, if admittedly, in a less densely developed part of the city.

Home Depot in New York City. Photo source unknown. The Home Depot store in Manhattan offers inexpensive home delivery.
Urban Home Depot, Manhattan, New York City

Because of how Walmart engages and enrages, this basic question about truly urban vs. truly suburban but located in the city is, for the most part is ignored by the pundits, including Robert McCartney in today's Post, "Wal-Mart's arrival in District looks like welcome advance for shopping, jobs.

It might be a welcome advance for shopping and jobs, but does this advance have to come at the failure to extend and strengthen urbanism?

And Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director, ought to be acknowledging this as a potential problem, at least because it's her job, even if we can understand that Robert McCartney isn't expected to know squat about urban design (but he ought to, if he is going to write about DC once or twice weekly as one the Post's two main columnists covering city issues). See "Walmart: “They're Bringing Groceries"" also from the City Paper.

For two of the four sites, the plans are failures. I'm not sure about what will happen for the Ward 7 site--because it will be part of a planned unit development process, maybe the developer will be motivated to do other things. Only the Ward 6 project, where the Walmart will be part of a mixed use decidedly urban development, can the integration of a Walmart store into the City of Washington be termed pro-urban.

But as McCartney writes:

D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, who will oversee a city review of two of the Wal-Mart sites, said the chain's arrival would be an advance in the city's long-term effort to increase shopping choices and keep sales tax dollars from "leaking" to the suburbs.

"We've had a big push to bring more retail to our city where people want to shop," Tregoning said. "We think it's great that a lot of types of retail that had previously ignored the District, and other cities, are now discovering our healthy, urban markets."

When city leaders are talking that way, it's easy to understand why opposition to Wal-Mart seems so weak. The anti-Wal-Mart rally Monday drew only about 70 people, of whom about 20 were covering the event for local media.

When you don't focus on "the real issues," of course the real issues get ignored.

That's all part of the calculus of how Walmart chose the sites, the developers to work with, and how they built support for their entry, based on the mantra of jobs and tax revenues, and with an advance phalanx of contributions to organizations on a variety of projects, including technical assistance for small businesses in Ward 5, which is why Councilmember Thomas is supportive ("New D.C. economic chairman supports Ward 5 Wal-Mart" from the Post).

As Robert McCartney writes:

Planning director Tregoning said she was "very supportive" of asking Wal-Mart to sign such an agreement but noted that her office's leverage with Wal-Mart is currently "very limited." That's because Wal-Mart is not asking for tax incentives or other public subsidies that would require D.C. Council approval.

When your only "power" is to persuade, when you don't have one consistent message, and when you don't bring up some of the key issues that really matter, it's very difficult to accomplish anything.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home