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Big-box retailers going urban?

Photo by Edward McMahon

Photo by Edward McMahon

There's a lot to chew on in this piece by Edward McMahon. First, a couple of key nuggets:

On December 4, 2013 Walmart opened its first two stores in Washington, DC and the new stores illustrate the lengths to which brick and mortar retailers will go to get into rapidly growing urban markets.

Compared to the old “grey-blue battleship box” that has saturated suburban and small town America, the new urban Walmart on H Street, NW in Washington is a remarkable departure.

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Designed by MV+A Architects and the Preston Partnership, the H Street Walmart is a handsome urban building with traditional human scale details. It includes cornices, individual multi-pane windows, an interesting corner feature at the main entrance, and a separate entrance for residents. It is a fully urban, pedestrian friendly building. Whether you love them or loathe them, this building proves that Walmart — one of the most recognizable symbols of modern suburbia — is going urban.

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In some ways, the idea of national chains opening big new urban stores is a return to the way things once were. In 1960, we called it department store. Today we call it a Walmart.

For a couple of decades, urban designers and planners have been illustrating how it's possible to fit big box stores into walkable environments. We've tried cajoling, shaming, even bribing in an effort to get the likes of Walmart and Target to locate in our projects and neighborhoods. So, on the one hand, it's great to see continued movement on the parts of these stores to adapt to certain markets. It's important to note a positive: this would not have happened twenty years ago. Walmart would have said "our format or nothing" at that time. So, it's tangible progress to see these efforts in DC.

But I think we have to also be careful about gleaning too much from this. DC has a very, very desirable urban market with great demographics, a top-notch public transit system and a very limited supply of land. The result of all of that is that it puts the District in a far better bargaining position than about 95% of other cities and town across America. If a big-box store wants to locate there and take advantage of the market, it will have to play by the District's rules to a large degree.

More interesting to me, though, is a question - why even bother with the current national chains? I'll write more in-depth about this at a future date, but to me the greatest lesson-learned for urbanists of the last couple of decades is that it's a waste of time to try and convince those that don't really care about doing walkable projects to try and do them well. Why not instead direct our energies and resources towards those that do want quality urbanism, but lack the capital and/or know-how of any given industry. For example, is it really that hard to teach someone how to operate a well-run drugstore? Can we not find energetic, hard-working people that can create an urban department store serving many of the same functions as the big-box stores? No doubt many attempts will fail, but I increasingly think it's a far more fruitful place to put time and energy than to waste it on those who simply don't care or have to be convinced.

So, cheers to DC for getting a couple of very well done buildings completed. But I'd like to see how a completely different model can have success without fighting those vested in the car culture.

Driving keeps declining

Casualties of the car culture

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