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.

Monday, December 09, 2013

More Walmart in DC

The Post had an article in yesterday's paper, "How Wal-Mart brings took Chicago -- and DC," about this week's opening of the two stores and how "Walmart is learning from its urban forays," especially Chicago.

This kind of article is a bit frustrating for me because the Post seems to have a history of running such articles after something opens, and not acknowledging such concerns during the development process, when activists are raising questions.  I remember being struck by this when the Convention Center opened in 2003 I think, and only afterwards was criticism really included in the newspaper's coverage.

Such after the fact reporting doesn't help us ensure that new projects yield the greatest possible benefit or that problems are adequately mitigated, etc.

That's the case with Walmart.

One of the things that the article mentions, is that the entry of big box stores like Walmart brings other chain stores as followers. 

But what is missed in this article and in some of the research on the subject is how changes in the store composition of commercial districts from a mix of locally owned stores and national chains to being more dominated by national chains also changes the district and has other economic effects.

Money spent in nationally-owned chains has less of a multiplier effect or the amount of money that recirculates within a community from subsequent transactions than money spent in locally owned stores, because national chains typically do not purchase goods and services locally, except maybe for some advertising.

Also, because chain stores typically don't get involved in local commercial district promotion and community participation, at least not to the extent that "may be warranted based on sales," this has the effect of diminishing local economic activity and community capital.  From the article:
said Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce ... Once the stores opened, she was disappointed not to see the retailer play a more active role in sponsoring public schools or charities: 'I don't see them giving back without asking for anything back.'
That type of business calculus shouldn't be surprising to anyone the least bit familiar with how retailers operate.  And it's something that elected officials need to be concerned about when they recruit chain businesses to their communities.

And as pointed out in the article, in Chicago research hasn't demonstrated that the stores necessarily increase overall sales and tax revenue or employment, just change how it is organized and generated.

And I continue to argue that people are learning the wrong lesson about Walmart choosing to have stores in some horizontal mixed use projects in DC and Los Angeles as representing some change in how Walmart develops stores.  From the article:
But it also learned from Chicago and other urban markets like Los Angeles, said Virginia Parks, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration.  Wal-Mart enhanced its store design further, agreeing to build two stores on the ground floor of apartment complexes.
Where Walmart is more of a tenant, they seem to be willing to take space in some mixed use projects, if the projects are in desirable locations. 

By comparison, where the Walmart real estate team is more involved in driving the project, they seem to be doing suburban-oriented single use buildings, even if the store may have structured parking or other more urban-appropriate design elements.

Cities need to have the right planning processes in place before Walmart comes calling, because after the process starts, it's too late to do anything--unless the elected officials are truly motivated to protect the interests of their community completely and delay the process while putting into place better and more complete planning controls.

In Hercules, California, the city used eminent domain power not to give land to Walmart, but to prevent them from entering the city ("Vote goes against Wal-Mart/ Council OKs using eminent domain to block retailer," San Francisco Chronicle).  Few cities have such fortitude.

It's another example of what I call "chance favoring the prepared city."  Without a plan, it's tough to ensure the best possible results.

Past blog entries

-- Lessons from Walmart's foray into DC
-- Wal-mart plays hardball with DC 
-- What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about

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At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

After the fact reporting doesn't help ensure the best outcomes but it sure makes us all cynical about government. I'm not yet sure that this is not the primary purpose of media in the modern age. Increase cynicism and decrease empowerment ... and profit? I suppose they profit off of the entire outrage factor while our corporate masters profit off of a cynical and disenfranchised electorate.

At 8:05 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

This general issue led me to make the point starting a few years ago that there is a difference between "economic development" as communities typically define it and "building a local economy" and this should be reflected in economic development elements of Comp. Land Use/Master Plans, and concomitantly in municipal policies of all sorts.

The thing is that the avg. planner has no agency or ability-empowerment to raise the issue(s), and the profession doesn't do a good job of it either, even journal articles can be pretty distant from these substantive issuess.

FWIW, I emailed the U Chicago professor quoted in the article and outlined my concerns about there needing to be a deeper understanding reflected wrt what she said--that Walmart is starting to go into vertical mixed use settings.

Again, my point is that so far Walmart's own real estate dev. arm doesn't seem to have much interest in vertical mixed use, even if the company is open to leasing space in such projects on a case by case basis.

Again/2, the issue is to have the right planning regulations and processes in place in advance of needing them, not during or after.

wrt "after," we haven't done squat in DC to fill the holes in our planning processes.

people have focused on the wage issue, but that's just one element.

everything else has been ignored.

At 11:30 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Great post.

could apply to uberX as well.


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