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Proposed Walmart undermines Rockville Pike redevelopment

For years, Montgomery County officials have been trying to remake Rockville Pike's retail strip into an urban boulevard. Yet thanks to a fluke in zoning, Walmart could drop a standard suburban big box in the middle of an urban neighborhood trying to become more walkable.

Pike Center today. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The new Walmart would be located at Rockville Pike and Bou Avenue, just north of Montrose Road in the Pike Center shopping center.

According to the Washington Post, the store would be considerably smaller than traditional Walmarts, with about 80,000 square feet of floor space. By comparison, a typical modern supermarket is about 60,000 square feet, while larger Walmart Supercenters can reach 185,000 square feet.

Renderings from the Post show the Walmart displacing an existing row of shops in the strip mall, which include national chains like Office Depot and CiCi's Pizza in addition to local businesses like Bagel City.

This would be the third Walmart in Montgomery County, after an existing store in Germantown and another proposed store on Connecticut Avenue in Aspen Hill. But unlike those stores, which are far from Metro, the proposed Rockville Walmart is a half-mile from the Twinbrook station. Despite County Executive Ike Leggett's assertion that the store is "consistent" with the county's goal of building around public transit, this proposal completely undermines those intentions.

View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint
A new Walmart would undermine plans to revitalize Rockville Pike.

Plans by the City of Rockville and Montgomery County envision Rockville Pike as an urban boulevard with tall buildings against the street, not behind big parking lots. By bringing shops, housing and offices together near Metro stations along the Pike, planners hope to make it easier for people to walk, bike or take transit to their destination, providing alternatives to driving and reducing congestion.

In order to do so, higher-density development has been approved around the Twinbrook and White Flint Metro stations, the latter of which was written up in the New York Times as a model for suburban redevelopment. Residential and office towers have already begun sprouting up along Rockville Pike.

The proposed Walmart, however, sits along a short stretch of the Pike that falls under a completely different plan that was drafted in 1992 and still allows strip shopping centers. This kind of development is exactly what the community is trying to prevent from being built along Rockville Pike in the future.

It'll only encourage more people to drive to Rockville Pike rather than taking advantage of other modes of transportation, creating more traffic. But it's likely that Walmart chose to locate in Pike Center because it was easy to build a conventional store there, without going for a time-consuming zoning change or building in a more expensive, urban format that doesn't just cater to drivers.

Two of the eight stores Walmart plans to build in Greater Washington will take an urban form. Their proposed store on New Jersey Avenue in the District will sit at the base of an apartment building, while a new store in Tysons Corner, which is undergoing a transformation similar to Rockville Pike, will be part of a larger complex with a gym and offices. Ironically, those two branches and the one on Rockville Pike are all being developed by JBG Rosenfeld, whose vice president Jay Klug called Walmart "pretty enlightened" about building stores to fit an urban context.

Walmart has the right to build as they see fit so long as the zoning allows them to do it. Yet their store as proposed is completely inappropriate for Rockville Pike as it tries to become a denser, more urban corridor. Last week, the Montgomery County Council introduced a bill requiring big-box stores to craft community benefits agreements to reduce any negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhood. They might also want to figure out how to make this big-box store fit into the new Rockville Pike before it brings down one of the most ambitious suburban redevelopment projects in the country.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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I agree that MoCo planners should push for a walmart mixed use development that is more like the one going up in Tysons Corner. Why should Moco get JBG's poor mans version of mixed use projects when Fairfax has a much higher quality project.

by mike on Oct 20, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

According to the Washington Post article, this will not just be a suburban style site plan:

"Krista C. Di Iaconi, a principal at Chevy Chase-based JBG Rosenfeld, said the company also plans to develop 200 to 250 apartments at the site. Two levels of underground parking will be built, she said."

by Tony on Oct 20, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

Currently this spot is within an ocean of parking, next to an immense Giant and several other big-box stores.

If proposed Walmart is following the existing zoning, then the problem is the zoning. It is not reasonable to expect Walmart to carry the urban torch -- it is not their business to remake the suburbs.

by goldfish on Oct 20, 2011 12:50 pm • linkreport

+1 goldfish

Some people will want to blame Walmart. But, the real blame goes to the folks who wrote the zoning code with such a glaring loophole.

by Falls Church on Oct 20, 2011 1:30 pm • linkreport

Either way, it's a perfect example of the difficulty in retrofitting suburbia. Also the reason why urban areas have a great advantage going forward into the coming decades. These suburban growth models have an incredible amount of inertia, both legal and cultural. It's tough to change the trajectory of a hurtling asteroid.

by oboe on Oct 20, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport

@Dan Reed -- the picture in the Post paper edition didn't make it look like a standard suburban big box store. As I recall, the store was behind a parking lot, but definitely not a big parking lot. And there were proposed apartments to go with it, next to the store. If that's what they actually built, my first impression from the Post article was that it could be better, but it could also be a lot worse.

by Miriam on Oct 20, 2011 1:56 pm • linkreport

Isn't there a Target on Bou Avenue already? A pretty large one at that...

Does Walmart really think they can steal the market there?

by John M on Oct 20, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

@Miriam, Tony

The drawings in the Post (I've seen them on their mobile website, but not on their full website) show a Walmart, albeit a smaller one (I did mention that), behind a big parking lot with an apartment building next door, but it too is behind a big parking lot. That's hardly an urban or "mixed-use" design. And it's still not enough for what Rockville Pike is supposed to become. If MoCo hadn't set the bar so high, this wouldn't be an issue.

At the same time, I agree that MoCo, not Walmart dropped the ball in not ensuring that this chunk of Rockville Pike is in line with the rest.

by dan reed! on Oct 20, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

This is reasoned and well-thought out (as is most of what Dan writes).

However, whenever I see these stories I always pause to question whether we'd be having the same debate about an 80,000 sq.ft Harris Teeter, Target, or (gasp!) Wegmans.

Still, I do think that Wal-Mart have made some incredibly good attempts to understand and adapt to urban markets (far more than any other national retailer I can think of), and it's upsetting to see them undermined and derailed because of the company's prior reputation. Their proposed NJ Ave store is a damn convincing argument that somebody at Wal-Mart really does get it.

I don't even particularly like Wal-Mart, and have plenty of reasons to think that they're a nasty company. However, when I see them making strides in the right direction, I don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

by andrew on Oct 20, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

We have to fight this! Do we really need this here!?
There is no lack of retail to serve the needs of this community! Put it somewhere else Mr Leggett!

I don't want Rockville to be the dumping ground for all the big box stores being displaced from the new White Flint City rising down the street.

Has anyone really thought about how bad the traffic already is (and will grow) once the Bou Ave road extension to Montrose open. Add into that a major retailer like this and forget it.

I already switch my driving patterns to east/west on the weekends to avoid the north/south gridlock. I don't have time to sit in traffic (and I simply won't go anymore).

Put is somewhere else!!!

by armchairquarterback on Oct 20, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

I don't have a problem with this proposal because "omg walmart so bad" or anything like that, but I have a problem because this location is literally thirty seconds away from a pretty sizable Target. I can't think of a single reason why a Walmart needs to go here....

..well, unless it also comes with re-developing the rest of that strip mall into something actually worthwhile, of course.

by Justin..... on Oct 20, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

"Either way, it's a perfect example of the difficulty in retrofitting suburbia. Also the reason why urban areas have a great advantage going forward into the coming decades. These suburban growth models have an incredible amount of inertia, both legal and cultural. It's tough to change the trajectory of a hurtling asteroid. "


Of course as we have seen urban jurisdictions can also have cultural and legal inertia. And of course both can face problems with the economics of retrofitting physical legacy development.

Right now I don't think there is a jurisdiction in the region better prepared in its political and social cultural for urbanism than Arlington County Virginia. Whether Arlington is a suburb or a city is a matter of Talmudic subtelty, and unless there is a prize for bragging rights I'm not sure it matters.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 20, 2011 3:54 pm • linkreport

Sounds like what they commonly call a "by right" development in Virginia. Similar situation occurred on Richmond Hwy about 1.5 miles south of the Beltway and Old Town. Old big-box building was demolished and an 80K sq ft WalMart (with a small Chuck E. Cheese next door) went up in its place with no zoning change and minimal oversight from the county.

by Froggie on Oct 20, 2011 5:34 pm • linkreport

@goldfish, you have the wrong strip mall and the one with Giant often has a very full lot (that's why the Target came with a parking structure. This seems pretty inadequate and the parking actually will be inadequate for a store that size.

by Rich on Oct 20, 2011 7:11 pm • linkreport

The redevelopment of Rockville Pike is the region's largest urban development project. Three downtowns served by Metro and MARC linked by a continuous corridor of urban development. Rockville Pike redevelopment is modeled on Rosslyn-Ballston but unlike that corridor will have a vibrant retail and streetlife scene. Development will surpass that what is planned at Tysons, which has been designed to become a skywalk-linked copy of Rosslyn without streetlife. Big-box format urban redevelopment will maintain the competitive edge over Tysons and accomodate modern retail development. We look forward to further development along Rockville Pike

by Cyrus on Oct 20, 2011 9:40 pm • linkreport

It would make sense to appeal here to Walmart's desire to make as much money as possible. E.g., Walmart might want to keep in mind that their proposal puts them on the edge of the higher-density urban 'cores' that will develop along Rockville Pike, rather than at the center. Is that really where they want to be? Maybe being on the periphery is Walmart's comfort zone, but it should be pointed out to them that Rockville Pike is evolving away from that kind of arrangement towards one where streetlife is more important.

by MattF on Oct 21, 2011 8:33 am • linkreport

Shame on JBG for proposing this. Yesterday JBG held an open house at the Legacy hotel to explain the project. I was told by a JBG rep that Wal-Mart called them and told them they want a store on the pike. JBG offered the property and proposed the deal. Obviously JBG does not care about traffic congestion which is already a big problem in the area. This big box store will severely affect traffic not only on the pike, but mainly on side roads (Bou, Chapman, Twinbrook). It will also hurt small businesses, without a doubt.
Leggett doesn't care either, he only wants the money. Shame on him as well! The past few years we have been hearing about the great developments that are going to come to White Flint and Twinbrook and how they will focus on walkability and bringing storefronts to the street, to put an end the strip mall era and car-dependent retail on the pike. We've also been hearing about the up-and-coming Rockville Pike, which will resemble the boulevards of Madrid or Champs Elyssees. Obviously that was just baloney. All the county and JBG care about is money money money, without caring about how their greed affect others. Shame on both!
I spoke with a traffic rep at JBG who was trying to sell me the story that because Wal-mart will be close to Twinbrook Metro it won’t have a big impact on traffic. Does he thikg we are really that stupid??? The fact that Twinbrook is close by will have no positive impact on traffic. That’s just JBG’s marketing strategy!
I hope MoCo’s development council is not naive enough to buy that story. Similarly, when I talked to another JBG rep and told them I couldn’t believe they were proposing another strip mall after what they have been promising for White Flint and Twinbrook they guy said “well, this is not really a strip mall…we are putting in a green roof on it!” are you serious??? Is that your saving grace? Shame on you JBG. To top it off, yet another JBG rep said “oh this will only add 20 cars to the congestion that is already on Rockville Pike” and when I looked at her like a deer in the headlights and she realized she was just pulling numbers from thin air she pointed me to the traffic rep who clarified that they expect over 450 additional cars during peak hour. So let’s see, we have about 3 peak hours of “rush hour” in the morning and 3 in the evenings. So this will result in an impact of about 2,700 additional cars a day, during those peak hours. That’s just insanity…!
MoCo development council: I beg you not to go through with this terrible idea. Outside of the money factor, this proposal by JBG doesn’t benefit anyone!

by Pro development anti big box traffic on Oct 21, 2011 10:17 am • linkreport

Yo, Froggie. There had been a zoning application on the Richmond Highway site (Kings Crossing) for an urban, mixed use development. The neighborhood gave the developer such a hard time about that application that the property owner (JBG - actually) decided to develop the property by right. True story....

by Alison Bowser on Oct 21, 2011 12:45 pm • linkreport

I'm not one to defend Walmart usually, but I have no problem with them opening up one of their Marketplace outlets on the Pike. FOLKS, THIS IS NOT A SUPERCENTER - PLEASE KEEP THIS IN MIND. And the location at Kings Crossing in Alexandria (mentioned above) actually made that shopping center much more aesthetically pleasing.

However, this will absolutely have a negative impact on traffic - not just on 355, but also on Twinbrook Pkwy and the very poorly designed Montrose/Randolph interchange. There is no excuse for not turning this into a mixed-use development, and there is no excuse for leaving out some of the businesses that anchor the existing Pike Center (Bagel City, Cici's, Fridays).

What I do find ridiculous is that the other new Walmart in Aspen Hill - which is actually a "Supercenter" - is less than a 10-minute drive away from the Pike. Isn't one store enough?

by ND on Oct 24, 2011 1:24 am • linkreport

I don't have an issue with Wal-Mart, per se (although they are not my favorite retailer), but I'm opposed to this development largely for three reasons:

-One, JBG is selling us a bridge in Manhattan if they are honestly trying to say that the proposed Wal-Mart's geographic proximity to Twinbrook will have any impact whatsoever on easing the traffic congestion the store will create. That's complete nonsense. People will drive to the Wal-Mart, and the Wal-Mart shoppers coupled with several hundred new residents (some who may drive, others who may not) will unquestionably have a negative impact on traffic congestion. There's really no debating that point.

-Two, that a Wal-mart strip mall is basically going to replace an existign strip mall is, as Dan accurately notes, completely contrary to what MoCo's planners are trying to do along that portion of the Pike. Leggett can spin this however he wants (and he undoubtedly will), but an 80k sf store set back behind a sea of parking is not in any way aligned with what is happening north and south of this location along the Pike. And this move virtually guarantees that this site will remain unchanged for decades to come, which is the real harm here.

-Three, this Wal-mart is redundant with other existing retail options already nearby. As others have noted, there is a Target directly behind the proposed Wal-Mart, and several grocery stores within a 1/2 mile radius. In short, this is a development that isn't filling a need while contributing negatively to the traffic flow and streetscape of a corridor desperately trying to shed its image as a strip mall-dominated parking lot.

Heck, I'll ad a fourth reason as well: I love me some Bagel City, and anyone that displaces them gets a massive thumbs-down in my book. Here's hoping BC can land a nice spot nearby.

by Ben on Oct 24, 2011 4:30 pm • linkreport

Doesn't Walmart fill a need in our county? There are people who will benefit by shopping at Walmart, saving money, not to mention the jobs. Not everyone attends Harvard from Montgomery County, and Walmart doesn't charge a membership fee.

by Rob Smith on Oct 25, 2011 2:34 pm • linkreport

Would rather have a Wegmans.

I for one will boycott this Wal-Mart and once again vote against Ike.

Is there anyway to prevent this from being built?

by Ben on Oct 26, 2011 8:41 am • linkreport

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