Wednesday, January 19, 2011

WBJ op-ed calls for smart development of Square 2986

Richard Layman (who ANC 4B is fortunate to have as chair of its Large Tract Review subcommittee) has an editorial in the most recent edition of the Washington Business Journal that anyone who's concerned about the development of Square 2986 (and future development of the entire Georgia Avenue corridor, for that matter) ought to read. Since it won't be available to non-WBJ subscribers online for another few weeks, I'm printing the text here.


Temper Walmart glee with planning
by Richard Layman
Date: Friday, January 14, 2011, 6:00am EST.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.`s entry into D.C. has been hailed by smart-growth proponents who see it as a sign of suburban-oriented retailers reconsidering the value of urban markets. And it`s been opposed by others, including labor interests fearing that unionized employers such as Safeway and Giant are at risk from Wal-Mart`s hypercompetitive business model, which encompasses low prices and nonunion workers.

Existing zoning at the sites chosen by Wal-Mart allows the sites to be developed with minimal opportunity for planning input. What should matter to most of us ~ and what we can influence ~ is getting the physical form, site planning and mobility right, so that these stores contribute positively to the city`s revitalization, available amenities and quality of life.

Wal-Mart is asking for lease terms of 75 years, so if the development isn`t done right from the outset, suboptimal outcomes will be with us for generations.

The biggest problem with all but one of the proposals is that they are for Walmart-brand stores in the city but not of the city.

The proposals are for retail-only sites, stores that aren`t components of more significant mixed-use projects maximizing the contribution of these sites to revitalization, retail expansion and housing opportunities. In places such as Petworth, Tenleytown, U Street, downtown and Columbia Heights, mixed-use retail projects are helping revitalize the neighborhood and commercial districts.

The proposed Walmart sites are also, with one exception, weakly served by the Metro, so most patrons will drive to shop, burdening already congested streets and failing intersections.

While research shows that suburban Walmart stores are associated with declining property value and crime increases, this doesn`t have to be the case for urban sites. The negative impact from suburban big-box retail is likely more the result of retail-only sites fronted by large wide roads and massive parking lots.

D.C. is still working to get urban form right for big-box retail projects. Only the Best Buy/Container Store development in Tenleytown came with new housing and the Metro -- a triple play.

Developments adjacent to the Rhode Island Metro and in Congress Heights are low-scale retail-only centers with large parking lots not much different from suburban retail centers. The DC USA shopping center in Columbia Heights is different in that it is developed upward not outward, and on top of a Metro station. But it came with a massive parking garage that is only one-third used, and the project isn`t mixed use, lacking housing, entertainment or other uses.

These experiences ought to be lesson enough about how to integrate big-box retail appropriately into large sites and existing commercial districts in D.C. Build upward, include housing and locate and operate stores adjacent to the Metro to reduce automobile trips.

Developers such as Foulger-Pratt, owner of the Georgia Avenue site, should be encouraged to create phased mixed-use development plans, so that sites become more than single-use retail. Underground parking is not enough to maximize the site`s contribution to the city.

The developers should be strongly discouraged from signing agreements giving Wal-Mart exclusive use of the sites, and Wal-Mart should agree to have their stores be part of multistory developments.

A typical Walmart gets 4,000 customers daily ~ that`s 8,000 trips! Retailers at DC USA and Tenleytown Metro likely get at least 50 percent of their customers on foot, by transit or bicycle. That won`t happen in D.C. Walmart stores without top-notch planning. Wal-Mart should be required to mitigate traffic generation by offering delivery services to customers (Home Depot does it in New York), shuttles to nearby transit stations (Ikea does it in Brooklyn), and shifting freight deliveries to overnight hours (even Yes! Grocery does this in D.C.) to minimize congestion.

If Wal-Mart and the respective developers apply a multistory, mixed-use and transit-focused program to their sites ~ with housing ~ then we can say that at least in D.C., Wal-Mart will be executing a truly urban retail strategy. Until then, we shouldn`t be congratulating ourselves on Wal-Mart`s entry into the city.

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