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.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The DC Walmart issue is frustrating

From email:

Wal-Mart Officials to present plans for 4 DC stores at DC Federation Assembly

Date: Tuesday, January 25, 2011, 8:55 AM
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
7:00PM . Room 412
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Special Presentation
Mr. Keith Morris, Director of Community Affairs, East Region, Wal-Mart

I am chairing a subcommittee focused on the large tract review process for the Walmart proposed for Square 2986 on Georgia Avenue NW (Ward 4). There are four other subcommittees focused on the effort and thus far I have been impressed by the level of participation and interest and discourse expressed by the participants so far.

-- Committee on Square 2986

The committees site has a lot of the documents the groups have been preparing or gathering, but not the email traffic.

Email threads yesterday indicated that the Walmart people are basically saying the same stuff at every meeting, and they aren't going through an iterative process where they take info in and respond subsequently with better proposals.

I know in my committee meeting we discussed how the development process works, and how Walmart games the process. I do find it interesting as I wrote before, about the oppositional response in New York City, while for the most part elected officials are rolling over in DC.

To me, the issues are really twofold:

- Walmart and their entry

- the developers and what they do with their sites.

Walmart's one thing. Crappy development of the sites in ways that don't further other revitalization objectives is something else.

The latter issue isn't being addressed for the most part, as people are focusing for the most part on Walmart as a company.

As for Walmart's entry, it is true that the reality is that there is very little that we can do to oppose their entry because we have limited legal means (as expressed through DC's building and planning regulations, as codified through zoning regulations) to do so.

People need to understand the significant gaps in DC building regulations (zoning regulations) with regard to community input and review of what are considered for the most part to be matter of right projects.

E.g., DC doesn't have a provision for special/additional review of retail stores over a certain size. Other communities do.

Some cities, like San Francisco, require significant review of each and every chain store proposal. In fact, I think their law is too draconian, as there is room and need for chain stores as part of more complete commercial districts and retail strategies.

Still other communities have more detailed review procedures for certain types of retail and service proposals (such as fast food stores--DC has this for certain commercial zoning categories) or for locations (i.e., neighborhood serving zoning in certain districts of Laguna Beach, CA to prevent over touristification of the commercial district).

The reason that the new "pawn shop notification" "law" in DC is meaningless is that for the most part it provides no remedies or significant criteria by which an oppositional argument can be made on the part of interested community groups and other stakeholders.

That means that desires for community benefits agreements with Walmart, while desirable for the community, have no basis in DC law (except if any of the specific projects will involve planned unit development zoning provisions, which I understand is the case for the Ward 7 store only) because they are matter of right projects.

In fact, the Walmart proposal for New Jersey Avenue in Ward 6 doesn't even trigger the large tract review process (Chapter 23 of the Zoning Regulations) so there is absolutely no opportunity for community input on the Walmart aspect of the project there.

Ideally, the community response to Walmart and the inability to accomplish very much will lead to initiatives to add these types of provisions to DC's zoning regulations.

People's animus with regard to Walmart means that the developers are getting a pass on whether or not their proposals for site development are good--the New Jersey Avenue proposal, or suck--the New York Avenue and Georgia Avenue proposals, or potentially sucking (Ward 7 proposal).

That's what bugs me the most.

And what I wrote about, in an op-ed "Temper Walmart glee with planning," published by the Washington Business Journal.

The word "glee" refers to the initial and in my opinion wrong-headed positive response by smart growth types to Walmart's "urban" entry into DC, because one of the four store sites--note that is 1/4, 0.25 or one-fourth--will be developed in an urban fashion.

That too quick and premature response has been picked up nationally and in turn it makes it that much more difficult to focus people's attention on the real and fundamental problems present in the remaining--3/4, 0.75, three-quarters--projects.

I don't expect anything new to come out at the presentation tomorrow night (which I will miss because I have a prior commitment).

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