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Will Wal-Mart be urban? Part 2: New York Avenue

Ever since Wal-Mart announced earlier this week that they intend to build four stores in the District of Columbia, the question on the mind of urbanists has been: What will they look like?

Approximate location and layout of the New York Avenue proposal.

This is the second of a four-part series examining the urban design of each proposal. The first part looked at the Brightwood location. Today: New York Avenue.

This proposal occupies most of the triangle bounded by New York Avenue, Bladensburg Road, and Montana Avenue. The site is 15 acres, which approaches the 20 acre average for a suburban Wal-Mart location.

According to developer Rick Walker, this site will have 360,000 square feet of overall retail development, consisting of a 120,000 square foot Wal-Mart (the largest of the four that will be in DC), one other big box retailer, and a number of smaller stores. The proposal does not call for residential or office.

Essentially, this will be a very tightly-packed power center.

The image, which I created based on Mr. Walker's verbal description, shows approximately (very approximately) how the site will be laid out. The red line is the 15 acre property. The blue area is the two-story big box space. Wal-Mart will occupy the top floor, with primary access from Bladensburg Road. The other big box retailer will occupy the bottom floor, with primary access from New York Avenue. The dark gray area along Montana Avenue will be a multi-story parking garage. The teal area will be small-format retail, with surface parking in front shown in light gray, in more or less typical strip-mall form.

The ideal redevelopment for this corner would be a mixed-use town center that could induce a larger-scale transformation from suburban strip highway to walkable urban neighborhood. This part of town is crying for major improvements, and something along the lines of Clarendon Market Common might be the first step in such a reinvention.

Unfortunately, this proposal misses that opportunity.

On the other hand, it could also be a lot worse.

This corner is Washington's most suburban in character. It is probably the one place in the entire District of Columbia where Wal-Mart's traditional suburban approach might have worked. Although it's unfortunate that the proposal won't be transformative in the way a mixed-use project might be, it is at least good news that even here at this simplest of sites, we'll be getting something better than the standard one-story asphalt ocean big box.

It seems likely that this will be the least urban out of the four proposals. If indeed this is as car-oriented as Wal-Mart's plans for Washington get, at least it shows how far we've come since the Rhode Island Avenue Home Depot.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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it's a shame that bladensburg road is going to be resigned to being a pseudo-freeway forever, then. there was such promise with the plan abdo had before.

some of the old facades along bladensburg are nice too. there's a charter school on this space--any idea what will happen to that?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 23, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

This seems appropriate to me. The land is nowhere near metro, it's pinched between train tracks, a large cemetery and the arboretum. It was never a viable candidate to become the next Clarendon or Logan Circle. Just because land falls within DC doesn't mean it automatically must be immediately programmed with all the top shelf urbanist walker's paradise principles. If in 30 years the conditions change then these big boxes can be torn down and something else built.

by Paul on Nov 23, 2010 2:06 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure about the school. Walker was clear that the WalMart site does NOT extend all the way to the corner of the NY Ave and Bladensburg, but I don't know exactly where the boundary is.

Thus an important reminder: The image is really, really approximate. Take it for general concept, not detail.

by BeyondDC on Nov 23, 2010 2:08 pm • linkreport

Maybe Wal-Mart will sponsor the Arboretum's azaleas across the street.

by Gavin on Nov 23, 2010 2:17 pm • linkreport

Although, this does not affect the area near me-in which the Walmart will be placed. Wouldn't it be more logical or could they not have done a collaborative effort in integrating the former concepts of the Abdo development with the proposed renderings if the current Walmart plans? The reason why I'm saying this is because I believe that the collaborative concept will serve a multitude of purposes for that area and the businesses that are to be placed there. It is a heavy traffic-flow area that could use a mixed-use environment that will promote growth,development and a livable, walkable community,while providing current and future resident with the basic services and amenities that are very much needed and desired. Just mu perspective.

by Charmaine on Nov 23, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

Charmaine: That's a great question. I know that Abdo never owned the land, he just had development rights for it. I wonder if he'd be willing to work with the incoming group on this plan.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 23, 2010 2:31 pm • linkreport

Geoff and Dan: When Abdo was planning to develop the parcel(s), the school was to remain - not sure if that follows now that any chance of mixed-use has been flushed down the drain. I can't eloquently express my disappointment right now in this proposal....

Suffice it to say I'm not surprised by, but am deeply disappointed in, those with the power to negotiate here who are comfortable in continuing to relagate mid- and big-box developments on Ward 5 land ripe for responsible, mixed-use development.

by Jaime Fearer on Nov 23, 2010 2:35 pm • linkreport

The Abdo concept barely had a snowball's chance in hell.

Once a site is developed as new construction residential it's probably going to be residential forever. It most cases that's not bad. But this plot is not economically viable for a vibrant quality mixed use concept with residential. Big box is a nice placeholder. You can always buy out a retailer to reprogram the space in a few decades. If most the parcels along the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor had been residential rowhomes rather than Sears, car dealerships and other commercial that corridor would have never been able to transform the way it has. This is a good placeholder for Bladensburg.

by Paul on Nov 23, 2010 2:38 pm • linkreport

Charmaine A brilliant thought - from your keyboard to the developers' ears.

by Jaime Fearer on Nov 23, 2010 2:39 pm • linkreport

I feel a lot better about this location, knowing that it won't be DC's only Wal-Mart. Should at least keep the traffic down a bit.

Personally, I'd like to see them build some flexibility into the site, so that there's at least the possibility for it to expand into something greater in the future, a la Potomac Yards.

The proximity to the railroad ROW also makes it a really good candidate for future Metrorail or streetcar service. Building a short grade-separated "stub" line out from the NY Ave Metro, down NY Ave to the Maryland border would likely be among the cheapest rail expansion options available to the region.

Right now, it'd be a bad investment, because very few people live out that way. Of course, for the same reason, it's a rather good place to start investing. Personally, I don't think that the area is quite ready for a big mixed-use development. Hopefully the Wal-Mart will be built in a way that encourages positive growth around it.

by andrew on Nov 23, 2010 2:43 pm • linkreport

Paul: Vast infrastructure upgrades and a multi-million dollar development are certainly intended to be more than a "placeholder." That's what concerns me. And comparing this corridor to Arlington's is apples to oranges.

by Jaime Fearer on Nov 23, 2010 2:51 pm • linkreport

Thank You all for the feedback and the insight. Also, please keep me or the sight posted with any official renderings that may come about concerning these developments. I'd really appreciate it.

by Charmaine on Nov 23, 2010 3:03 pm • linkreport

@Gavin: Maybe Wal-Mart will sponsor the Arboretum's azaleas across the street

They've got the parking. If not, I'm sure they'd be glad to sell them.

by Jim Titus on Nov 23, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

That sounds like a good tagline to describe the situation:

Walmart in DC: It could also be a lot worse.

by Peter Smith on Nov 23, 2010 3:15 pm • linkreport

Am I the only one who notices Washington Math & Science School right on the blue spot but you speaking nothing of it ?

by kk on Nov 23, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

kk: Both Jaime and I have brought it up in previous comments if you look upstream.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 23, 2010 6:01 pm • linkreport

Thank you for the rendering - I've been trying to get an approximate image for my neighborhood association.

Coupled with the Costco/Target complex that may/may not break ground in summer of 2011, this is a traffic nightmare in the making. We are already contending with overweight delivery trucks beating up S Dakota from 50, and traffic is heavy most of the day. There's also a neighborhood quality perspective: the delivery trucks to Wal-mart are LOUD, and typically scheduled in for very early in the mornings (between 12 & 3 or 4).

Is there any city planning for the flow of customers AND the delivery trucks? How is that going to work with the bus depot traffic? Can the neighborhood be involved with the store's scheduling of incoming supply trucks?

The S Dakota/Bburg NE area does need investment and development, but it's really unclear how two major big-box developments are going to bring the kind of neighborhood-friendly growth we need.

by Fraser on Nov 23, 2010 7:54 pm • linkreport

Well at least its bus accessible (B2, E2, E3, D3, D4)

by Johnny Cocker on Nov 24, 2010 7:39 am • linkreport

What in the world ever happened to the principle of highest and best use?

None of the four proposed Wal-Mart sites is suited for this kind of low-density, land-gobbling, non-job-creating land use.

I hope the Gray Administration reviews and cancels all four of these projects. One Wal-Mart, with their Haitian-Sweatshop-On-The-Potomac (anti-)labour policies and their somewhat racialist overall management policies (have YOU ever seen a senior Wal-Mart executive of colour? I haven't), would have been bad enough.

Four at one time is the land use and social equity equivalent of The Death of a Thousand Slices.

This kind of decision validates the paraphrase of what George Bernard Shaw said of Christianity:

The problem with (serious revitalization) urban planning is that it has never been tried.

By the way, we live a long walk in good weather from the Wal-Mart proposed for Brightwood and we will never, ever shop there. Not until\unless they unionize anyway.

Disgusted in DC
Harold Foster

by Harold Foster on Nov 24, 2010 9:58 am • linkreport

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