Greater Greater Washington

Demand a better Wal-Mart on city land

Wal-Mart is coming to DC, and residents who value vibrant urban places should worry. The Arkansas-based retailer is notorious for constructing large single-story boxes surrounded by oceans of surface parking.


Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.

That format is antithetical to reviving neighbor­hoods and activating street life. But Wal-Mart's entry into DC doesn't have to be that way.

One of Wal-Mart's proposed locations is a collection of 4 DC-owned gravel parking lots at the corner of New Jersey Avenue NW and H Street NW. Together these lots comprise 161,670 square feet of undeveloped land. This land includes what used to be the 800 block of 1st Street NW, originally in the L'Enfant Plan, but closed several decades ago.

The Office of Planning's 2006 NoMA Vision Plan and Development Strategy recommends restoring 1st Street NW to its original purpose. This is an area where the Office of Planning, the Committee of 100, and Greater Greater Washington likely agree. If the District sells these lots, it must restore and retain 1st Street.

The city should combine and rearrange its lots into two lots, each flanking a side of the restored 1st Street. The western lot will be contain about 47,650 square feet of land and the eastern lot will contain about 79,100 square feet of land. The eastern lot would be suitable for Wal-Mart, since the chain is looking to build a store as small as 80,000 square feet. A store spanning two floors, much like the Target at DC USA, would obviously double the space to nearly 160,000 square feet.

A Wal-Mart at this location will require the consent of the of District government in selling District land. If we sell the land out of desperation, no questions asked, Wal-Mart will build the cheapest and fastest store it knows best: a big box surrounded by an ocean of parking entirely incompatible with the livable and walkable neighborhoods DC wants. It is a mistake we will regret for decades to come.

Since the land belongs to District residents, we have a right to demand that the Council take care when disposing of it. We should condition the land sale on good urbanist principles, that is, building to the property lines, burying any parking, and providing a mixture of uses (offices, housing, etc.) beyond just a regular store. If structured properly we have the chance to transform a gravel parking lot into a development that, like DC USA, can transform the area around it for the better.

This type of mixed-use development has proven profitable elsewhere in the city. At this location, which is within sight and walking distance of the Capitol, Wal-Mart can undoubtedly earn a handsome profit building a multi-story, mixed-use project. The company will also benefit from displaying a positive case study close to Congress.

With good design, city residents and Wal-Mart can both come out ahead.

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Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

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Seems like a lot of speculation about "what Walmart will build" with no actual facts to support it.

by Fritz on Nov 19, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport


Great plan. The only downside is the lot is located at the corner of 1 & I. ;-)

by beatbox on Nov 19, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

Given the site of the property, wouldn't a free parking lot get filled with (among other things) GPO employees and Gerogetown Law students? Walmart might not need any pressure to do the right thing, as it were.

by Steve S on Nov 19, 2010 11:41 am • linkreport

I'm somewhat surprised that Gonzaga never attempted to purchase the lot adjacent to their property.

This is a really interesting part of town to propose a store in. There's not much retail, and there are very few residences nearby. It's also not the easiest location to drive to. On the other hand, it's got great connectivity to Union Station and the Streetcar (which I strongly suspect influenced Wal-Mart's decision to locate there).

On the other hand, there's a lot of vacant land nearby, and a languishing residential neighborhood to the north. This stretch of H St (along with G and K) doesn't have much of a sense of place or purpose to it. Although I'm decidedly wary about the prospect of Wal-Mart in DC, I think that this store could provide a great anchor point for this neighborhood, and get more housing built downtown.

Even in spite of their reputation as a corporate pariah, Wal-Mart seems to be acting in good faith with regards to their DC expansion plans. They want our business, and we're in the position of being able to shape the way in which they expand into our area. This is a rare opportunity for all of us to get what we want.

by andrew on Nov 19, 2010 11:45 am • linkreport

So the real question I have is who do we direct our comments to within the District government and/or Wal-Mart?

by uthanda on Nov 19, 2010 11:48 am • linkreport

The bigger question for me is what kind of development this will be - is this a stand-alone Walmart store? Or would it be a dense, mixed use development with a Walmart on the first floor?

This particular site is not only DC owned, but it's zoned C-3-C - the same zoning as the rest of the large and rapidly developing NoMA area. I can't see Walmart the strip mall being appropriate here. However, if we're talking about Walmart in the ground floor of a larger development, then that makes sense. That's what the zoning allows, and that's eventually what the market will likely demand.

by Alex B. on Nov 19, 2010 11:55 am • linkreport

Google maps thinks First Street already exists across this lot.

by David C on Nov 19, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

What's more worrying is that Wal-Mart is probably going to destroy local business in the process.

by Phil on Nov 19, 2010 12:13 pm • linkreport

So . . . what about the other three sites? Is there any hope for them?

by dan reed! on Nov 19, 2010 12:15 pm • linkreport

@ David C - Technically with the parking lot gates open it pretty much does :)

by Thaps on Nov 19, 2010 12:22 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.

Tommy Wells claims to have seen the preliminary plans, and compared it to City Vista.

So, yes. Ground-floor retail, with tons of residential stacked on top. Wal-Mart have also definitively said that the new stores will be ~80,000 square feet, as opposed to their typical 200,000 sq. ft. store. From what I remember, the Columbia Heights target is a bit over 100k.

My guess is that the new stores will resemble a Fred Meyer (if anybody here is from out west and familiar with that chain) more than a typical Wal-Mart or Target.

I like this strategy a lot more than Target's in Columbia Heights -- with 4 locations, they might actually have some hope of keeping items on the shelves throughout the day. The DC Target has been, if anything, too successful for its own good. The store format doesn't work well in a high-traffic urban environment.

by andrew on Nov 19, 2010 12:22 pm • linkreport

[The new WalMart will have] ground-floor retail, with tons of residential stacked on top.

New meaning to "living at Wal-Mart"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Orn7xAEKov4

by oboe on Nov 19, 2010 12:26 pm • linkreport

@andrew

That's good to hear for that location.

The other locations should be held to similar standards, as well. Obviously, the particulars of the project and the development will vary.

@dan reed

Regarding the other sites - the presumptive site at 58th and East Capitol is also DC-owned. That site is also quite close to the Capitol Heights metro station.

The others are privately held, I believe.

by Alex B. on Nov 19, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

Has Walmart even proposed any designs yet? Is it premature for us to jump on them? I'll be the first one to attack corporate greenwashing or faux urbanism, but we don't even know what they're proposing to build yet. In addition, I think it's a mistake to compare Walmart to Target and DC USA. Columbia Heights has far more by way of transit options and the entire surrounding area was redeveloped at the same time. Walmart seems to be moving very fast with these plans and I doubt that the locations selected will be very good for wholesale walkable redevelopment options, at least not within a 2-year time frame.

by Adam L on Nov 19, 2010 12:45 pm • linkreport

@Thaps: I have tried biking across the lot following First Street NW with both gates open, only to have a security guard tell me to turn around and bike around the lot on New Jersey Ave. I believe the lot is permit parking only for Government Printing Office employees.

by Malcolm K on Nov 19, 2010 12:46 pm • linkreport

Is there anything other than speculation as to the format of the proposed stores?

I personally can't stand Wally World. Their stores immediately induce severe depression the moment the fat, underpaid greeter slurs "welcome to Wal-Mart" with the enthusiasm of a zombie that hasn't eaten a brain in two weeks.

But that said, I think it's foolish to assume that they would put stores in a place like NJ & H streets that is formatted like a typical suburban outpost.

Wal-Mart is profit driven, not bound by convention. They are pioneers in some ways for green building - many of their newer stores have glass ceilings that admit natural light, substantially reducing electric usage. Now I have no misconceptions that this has anything to do with a desire to be green. It's cost effective. But many big companies are slow to make any kind of change to their tried-and-true models, even when it would save them money. Wal-Mart is incredibly good at making money, and this also means that they are smart enough to think and be unconventional when it's going to help them.

I am sure they are not oblivious to Target's success in DCUSA using what was then a completely unproven model for a big-box-in-the-city store. I am sure this has not been lost on them.

by Jamie on Nov 19, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

It will be interesting to see what Wal-Mart proposes for these sites in terms of parking. The Capitol Heights site, for example, is in an area where car travel definitely predominates, so it will need parking if locals are going to shop there. On the other hand, if they put in large, free parking lots, they will almost certainly have a huge problem with people using their parking as commuter parking for the metro. They could respond by charging for parking or monitoring it, or they could respond by designing their lots to make it difficult to walk to the nearby metro station (such as with fences). The latter option would be terrible, of course, but it wouldn't surprise me if that's the approach that the proposed plans will take.

by David F. on Nov 19, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

I really cant stand the two floor stores; they save space and all but they are hell for the disabled when you have to depend on elevators and escalators working or for able body people when the cart escalator is not working.

The Target in DC is one of the first stores where I have not seen the elevator pushed into a corner somewhere and you have to play Where's Wally to find it.

What about opening I Street up to North Capitol.

@ Alex B.

One problem with that East Capitol & 58th Street location the hill from Capitol Heights is a b***h to walk. I did it several times when a family member worked in the high rise that used to be over there.

You will have a bunch of people waiting for the 96, 97 bus lines to take it only 2 or 3 stops.

by kk on Nov 19, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

It's pretty pathetic that the District was sitting on this property until someone the size of Walmart came in to claim it. I have a hard time believing that if they had just ran 1st St. through the lot and then upzoned the parcels and sold them off, it really would have sat vacant until Walmart came in. Why not just auction it off and let developers decide the best use?

You say that "[i]f we sell the land out of desperation, no questions asked, Wal-Mart will build the cheapest and fastest store it knows best," but is that really true if it were opened up to competitive bidding? It seems unlikely that, at the price it would go for at auction, someone would decide to build a one-story buidling with a sea of parking lot.

by Stephen Smith on Nov 19, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

@Stephen Smith

Without any details about the disposition of that property (or the development plans for it - is WalMart developing it, or would they just be a tenant in a mixed use development?), I think your criticism is premature.

by Alex B. on Nov 19, 2010 1:08 pm • linkreport

Regarding the couple comments about potential problems with abuse of free surface parking, this is a non-issue. I am sure they would just use a ticket system like cohi Giant, pentagon city Costco, and so on.

by Jamie on Nov 19, 2010 1:10 pm • linkreport

Stephen-

The District transferred the development rights to the parcels several years ago. The developer has been sitting on the land, trying to secure a GSA tenant (presumably he couldn't get the financing to build on spec). If he doesn't have a set plan by January (I think?) the developer is going to be facing some pretty steep financial penalties imposed by the city.

by The AMT on Nov 19, 2010 1:11 pm • linkreport

"A positive case study close to Congress" is probably the last thing Walmart wants!

by amanaplanpanama on Nov 19, 2010 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Adam L - the site is good for walkable development if an appealing tenant like Walmart where to anchor it. NoMA to the Northeast and Mount Vernon Triangle to west offer considerable residential and continue to grow.

@AMT - The developer (the Bennett Group) was trying to lure GSA tenants. They were finalists for the US DOT and SEC but lost out to other sites.

by Paul S on Nov 19, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

Assuming Walmart does build high-density residential above the store at this location, be prepared for the next discussion: the gentrification of that area, the increased property taxes, and the driving out of long-time, native-born residents.e

by Fritz on Nov 19, 2010 2:57 pm • linkreport

The previuos residents of that area just North of there (k street and north) were already driven out when they tore down 23 K street NW and even more will leave once Sursum Corda goes by-by.

by Eric on Nov 19, 2010 3:04 pm • linkreport

I've seen some great implementations of big box stores which incorporate small-scale retail within their frontages -- Target in Col Heights being an example, but I've come across a number of big box stores in other cities which one wouldn't even readily recognise as big box until you step inside. Even Asda (which is Wal*Mart's UK arm) has a number of these stores, so it's not unheard of with this company.

by Bossi on Nov 19, 2010 3:22 pm • linkreport

I posted this on another thread, but it's possibly more appropriate here . . .

Walmart has occasionally done a store in a denser environment with a compromised form.

They have a sizable store in Honolulu (in the relatively pedestrian-friendly, but not uber-touristy, Ala Moana area) in a two-storey building with a Sam's Club on the top floor. There's a multistorey parking garage attached to it with free parking (albeit in an area where other parking is sometimes, but not always, free as well). Actively enforced street parking meters do exist in the neighborhood.

View of the Honolulu Walmart/Sam's Club

They don't particularly enforce the parking restrictions there, and people from the surrounding office buildings do sometimes park there during the day.

It also has space for several retailers along the street, including a Starbucks, Cold Stone Creamery, and a Jamba Juice, with a few outdoor tables.

It doesn't have the absolute best urban form (there's still a half a block face on each side looking into a garage), but it shows they're willing to try. Frankly, it's damn good for a Walmart. I'm not sure if it was the City, the developer, or Walmart that encouraged the design they used.

In any case, the District (to the best it's able legally) should be using that Honolulu store as negotiating tool to suggest that nothing less would be desired. Hopefully it'll even be way better.

by Joey on Nov 19, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

Walmart needs to get here quick! We need goods formerly made in North America, now made in China and low paying/benefit retail part time employment for us.
It's an exciting time to have this Win Lose right on our doorstep.

by Alex on Nov 20, 2010 5:47 pm • linkreport

be wary of Wal-Mart going into any area, it all but ruined our small area local economy, it employed many part time at the beginning and now your darn lucky to find 3 open checkouts at once time, I'm not sure how many small shops closed here over the last 7 years, but they hurt a lot of small business where you could buy a decent item,

IOW's do not trust wal mart, this is the not the same company it was when it started growing with good American made products in it, it is purely about this bottom dollar and they do not care who they step on to get it, in the first few years everyone will think it is great, then reality will strike.......

by outof towner on Nov 21, 2010 7:44 am • linkreport

@ outof towner

Who really gives a crap whether something is made in America, China, Korea, India or Mars. The majority of the US will not give it up to pay 3 or 4 times as much for the same product.

How much of the products in your residents and the materials your residence is made out of are 100% from the US.

If a business can not sustain itself after a big box retailer comes in than they are a in sector that is to easy to enter and should go to a niche market.

Nobody told them to sell the same thing that can be found in 1000's of stores.

by kk on Nov 21, 2010 3:47 pm • linkreport

Malcolm: I had the same thing happen to me a couple years ago when I lived in Bloomingdale. I figured this would be the fastest way home from Capitol Hill, but the guard was very vocal about my attempt to traverse the parking lot.

Those who are opposed to speculation about the nature of the site, I have to ask—why? What's wrong with laying out possibilities? If you're opposed to it, come back to the blog after it's built, and we can discuss whether you like the results or not. Fair?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 21, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

The Target/Best Buy complex that was built in Columbia Heights was very welcome but also was an expression of architectural laziness. A great city deserves great architecture and we didn't get that in Columbia Heights. I fully agree with this article that the city must demand that Walmart build a store as elegant as the region in which it plans to build. Smart minds at Walmart will recognize its proposed DC location as an opportunity to build a beautiful and green building that is sensitive to the architecture around it. Talk abut a flagship store! Smarter minds in DC will demand that Walmart build responsibly, beautifully, and sensitively as a condition of the right to locate in town. And those who believe that zoning has no place in American cities should take a trip to Houston, which will just let you build anything anywhere anytime.

by ActuallyFromDC on Nov 21, 2010 6:38 pm • linkreport

Walmart is a monument to the decline of America.

by Brad on Nov 23, 2010 6:35 am • linkreport

Like most H street folks, I'm not happy about Walmart. Walmart is so trashy. What other store has a website devoted to mocking it @ http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/ ?
A Target would be welcomed news, but a Walmart is a nightmare.

by jennifer on Nov 23, 2010 12:05 pm • linkreport

Walmart and Target are exactly the same thing, except to the extent that one has traditionally marketed to a more rural demographic and one has traditionally marketed to a more suburban demographic. The two stores are almost exactly the same in terms of merchandise, layout, customer service, etc. Any suggestion otherwise indicates a fair probability you have never been to a WalMart

by Nate on Nov 23, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport

Sure, people hate on Walmart more, but there is really little functional difference. I personally prefer Target. I just like the stores better, and it's probably arguable that they are a better corporate citizen. But those are nuances. It's no different than saying you'd welcome a Giant but a Safeway would be a nightmare. They both sell groceries.

by Jamie on Nov 23, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

My concern with the 1st and K st location is the proximity to other grocery stores. If this walmart does sell groceries, you will have 4 groceries within the blocks between 4th NE , H street, 5th st on the west and New york to the north. Can all of these remain viable?

Giant at 3rd and H NE,
Harrus Teeter at 1st and M NE,
Safeway at 5th and K NW, and
Walmart at 1st and H NW.

by Eric on Nov 23, 2010 1:51 pm • linkreport

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