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.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Walmart and DC development regulations

Today's Post has an op-ed ("What Wal-Mart has meant to a Chicago neighborhood") and a letter to the editor ("Ward 4 needs a Wal-Mart") about the value of having Walmart stores in DC. "Walmart" is one of the reasons I haven't blogged for the past few days because on Thursday I had to finish the "final" draft of the ANC4B subcommittee review of the development application for the Walmart on Georgia Avenue. (Actually the draft will go through one or two more revisions over the next week as Committee members weigh in on the language, arguments, and recommendations, and the document is revised accordingly.)

As a commercial district revitalization person--having been a founder of the H Street Main Street program, and helping to found the now defunct Brookland Main Street program--I do have a problem with retail chains in terms of how they can negatively impact local commercial districts and retailers.

Although over time, I've come to understand how the inclusion of "chain" stores into the mix of a commercial district can complement and strengthen both the commercial district and independent stores. A good example would be the Room & Board furniture store on 14th Street NW, which helps to strengthen that commercial district's offering in furnishings and housewares and helps to attract customers to other stores there.

Walmart though isn't necessarily a good business neighbor in these terms, because their business model is based on an attempt to capture as much as 100% of a consumer's purchasing of goods and services. That doesn't leave much money on the table to be spent in other stores. And their negative impact on local retailers and retail districts in other places is well documented.

Basically, the only new businesses that open are in complementary retail and service categories (such as full service sit down restaurants, banks, automobile service) in which they don't operate.

On the other hand, the zoning regulations allow for stores such as this in the city, and plenty of people want to shop in stores like Walmart because they want to save money--and who can argue with that kind of sentiment?

Since the zoning code allows stores like Walmart, it wasn't worth spending time developing "anti-" arguments since they wouldn't go anywhere legally.

When I get involved in issues like this, what tends to interest me more (other than the fact that this proposed store 3/4 of a mile from where I live could generate a great deal of through traffic on my street, and whether or not the development will contribute positively to the revitalization of the Georgia Avenue commercial corridor) is what the project and process communicate about the city's development regulations and whether or not the right regulations and processes are in place so that the community (in all its various segments and positions) can deal with the proposal--finding the gaps and making proposals to change the processes to eliminate the gaps.

Because of all the animus expressed about the potential entry of Walmart (their business practices, etc.) into the city, as well as the almost uniform support that the company's has received from the city's elected officials (the Post op-ed today is by CM Thomas of Ward 5), it has been almost impossible to: (1) direct greater attention to the significant gaps in DC's planning and zoning regulations as they relate to dealing with these kinds of projects; and (2) direct attention to the real and significant problems with the specific proposal as offered (single use vs. mixed use project, with a multi-decade lease, precluding the ability to add density to the site in phases).

1. The Large Tract Review process (Chapter 23 of Title 10 of the DC Municipal Regulations) is not fully binding. There is a separate provision in the law that if inconsistencies are found between the development application and intent of the Comprehensive Plan, amendments to the plan can be made to halt the project--but not in the case of "low density commercial buildings" which this proposal for Georgia Avenue is.

2. The LTR is focused on minimizing adverse environmental, traffic and neighborhood impacts. We argue that the economic impact, positive and negative, of proposed projects should be considered as part of the review process. While this is a reasonable interpretation of the language of the regulation, it has not been done in the past, or currently.

The research touted by Walmart and CM Harry Thomas in today's op-ed found that new businesses also opened in association with the Chicago Walmart, and argues that should counter the fact that 82 small businesses that closed over the same period.

But the research, funded by Walmart, doesn't address the change in local commercial districts that comes from the entry of large retailers, and the negative impact that this may have on the local commercial district and the local economy:

(a) National retailers replace locally owned stores as the dominant retailers in local communities;

(b) Locally owned and operated retail operations close;

(c) Traditional commercial district locations are supplanted by individual stores or clusters of national retailers located outside of central business districts and other in-community locations, and the region’s commercial activity re-centers to these new locations;

(d) Business services and other activities that support locally owned retailers decline in response to the closure of locally owned and operated retail businesses, leading to further business closure;

(e) The economic multiplier impact of local consumer purchases is reduced as chain stores purchase services and goods from out-of-market vendors, and repatriate profits to distantly located corporate headquarters.

Most economic studies finding limited economic impact of the entry of chain stores such as Walmart fail to study these kinds of impacts, and therefore tell an incomplete picture about the impact of national retailers on local economies.

3. One way to require an economic analysis would be through the creation of a separate "Large Retail Review" regulation and process. So-called "Big Box Ordinances" exist in many other communities, to provide the ability for a more fine-grained approval process, and providing a process for mitigation of possible negative impacts.

People might be familiar with the RespectDC effort which aims to get Walmart to sign a "community benefits agreement" in advance of their opening stores in DC.

Typically community benefits agreements are only triggered when an applicant desires "relief"--exceptions, variances, zoning changes, planned unit development procedure, etc., or incentives--financial or other support, for their project.

Of the four proposed stores, only one, in Ward 7, triggers such a process, because the proposed site is part of an ongoing "planned unit development."

While Councilmember Mendelson has put forward two separate pieces of legislation that would require community agreements for projects such as these, I think a better course would be to add a Large Retail Review process to the development regulations.

4. Of all the proposed Walmart sites in DC, the Georgia Avenue location probably has the leaset amount of transportation capacity to support a store generating thousands of daily customer trips by car to and from the store.

In the Comp. Plan amendment process a couple years ago, I submitted a proposed amendment which would put procedures in place to link land use approvals with the capacity of transportation infrastructure to meet the transportation demand generated by the site. That's what they do in the Netherlands ("Utrecht: 'ABC' Planning as a planning instrument in urban transport policy").

This amendment was not approved. Creating a land use regulation along these lines should be revisited.

There are other issues with this particular proposal which I will blog about after the report is final.

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