Greater Greater Washington

Retail


Ward 7's Walmart could be walkable and help small business

Walmart's proposed store on East Capitol Street, adjacent to the Capitol Heights Metro station, has many residents excited for its food and other products, but others concerned about its design, which looks a lot like a school and doesn't engage the street.


Rendering of Ward 7 Walmart.

This site, alone among the four Walmart proposals, is public land. The independent DC Housing Authority owns the property. It has an interest in maximizing its profit to be able to create as much affordable housing as possible, but it also has a duty to help the neighborhood become better, to fulfill its mission of "enhancing the quality of life in the District of Columbia."

Why is it important to engage the street, anyway? This site is right around a Metro station, making it an ideal spot for a growing commercial district to serve the neighborhood's retail needs. A Walmart provides a lot of goods, but people also need some specialty goods and a wide range of services.

If the Walmart creates a forbidding pedestrian environment, it will make adjacent spaces less appealing for others to open shops. On the other hand, if its design encourages walking to, from, and around the Walmart, it will make it easy for someone shopping at the Walmart to also run across the street to patronize a beauty shop, specialty retail, or a cafe that complements the Walmart and contributes to a strong commercial district.

A professional urban designer, DC resident, and Walmart stock owner who nevertheless did not want to be named submitted a plan for how Walmart can best encourage small, noncompeting businesses and create a more pleasing design as well. Between the big box store and East Capitol street, it could create a frontage of "incubator space," small storefronts that it can rent to appropriate, DC resident-owned small businesses.

Meanwhile, the eastern half of the site, closest to the Metro, can serve as parking, but should be designed to allow future residential with parking below. This will not only bring more customers to the Walmart but take advantage of the Capitol Heights Metro, just across the street from there, and contribute to a mixed-use district.


Click to enlarge.

With parking under, above and behind the store, and shops oriented to the side, the block would become much more a part of the neighborhood compared to the fairly bland and inactive façade in Walmart's plan.


Click to enlarge.

Would Walmart do this? Since DCHA owns the land, they can attach a variety of conditions to the deal. So can the Zoning Commission, since this property will go through a Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.

Walmart should also be happy to do this. The plan wouldn't take away from Walmart's own store, and would likely even enhance its profitability by bringing more customers to this area to shop at the other businesses.


Walmart Visitor Center. Photo from Walmart.
Plus, it fits in with many of the values Walmart now espouses. The Walmart Visitor Center, located in Sam Walton's original variety store on the Town Square in Bentonville, Arkansas, includes displays on the history of Walmart's growth and Sam Walton's values.

One display describes the Walton International Scholarship Program (WISP) "which was created to promote democracy and free enterprise in Latin America by enabling qualified low-income students to earn a college degree in the United States, learn first-hand about individual initiative and free enterprise, and experience the benefits of living in an open and democratic society. The ultimate goal is for students to return to their countries with the skills and the desire to have a positive impact on the private sector of their nations' economies."

Walmart can start encouraging "individual initiative and free enterprise" right here in the US by designing their Ward 7 store with a small business incubator. It'll be good for DC's economy, good for residents, good for the neighborhood's urban design, and good for Walmart.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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To say "Walmart should be happy to do this" is a bit lazy. Are they happy to do it and they're being prevented by zoning laws or community residents who want tons of parking and are angry about new density? Or do they genuinely believe that they will maximize their profits if they have as much parking as possible? And if it's the latter, are they actually right? Or do they just believe they need the parking because they're conservative in their mindset and don't have enough experience with urban formats? Or is it something more insidious – like that they're getting the land for super-cheap and so they don't even need to try very hard to maximize their profits?

Each of those options has a very different ramification. If they want to build more densely but community/zoning is preventing them, then you have to attack it that way. If they actually believe the market wants all that parking, then there are some tough questions for urbanists – namely, are you willing to potentially stifle new development to make sure everything looks exactly how you'd like it to look. And if it's that last one, then obviously we have an even bigger problem than we thought.

And finally, I'd take issue with this whole DC resident "incubator" space bullshit. The District of Columbia is relatively small, and you're severely limiting your potential client base by only considering District residents. You have to ask yourself: Is it really worth having shitty storefronts or having them go vacant because you couldn't find someone within the city limits to run the store? Personally, I see endless programs designed to help DC residents, and I don't at all see them working. They're prone to patronage and generally benefit people who are good at gaming the system in the first place and who know people in government. They come at a real cost, and I'm tired of left-leaning urbanists pretending there's no cost to excluding the majority of people in a metro area from opportunities – and, likewise, excluding the local community from enjoying whatever store non-residents wish to open.

Real, sustainable growth comes when people in the community can compete on an even playing field with those from outside – not when the city forces landlords to only rent to residents. When we had our first urban boom at the turn of the last century, cities didn't become rich by restricting who could work/rent space there – they got rich because they are genuinely better places to live and work. If you believe that's still true (and I do), then we should have enough confidence to not have to block non-residents at every turn.

by Stephen Smith on Mar 31, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

+1 regarding the utter uselessness of "incubator" space, atleast in the District.

How do I know? Because DCUSA and the Convention Center both have HEAVILY subsidized "incubator" space set aside for local, small and/or disadvantaged District business and those storefronts have either yet to be filled, or are filled for a matter of months before the business stops paying its rent, and DC is out both the rent AND the tenant fit-out costs which it has also been subsidizing. If it is failing at DCUSA and has failed at the Convention Center, I think we can put that useless experiment to rest.

by freely on Mar 31, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

The notion that Walmart can or will HELP local businesses is naive and misguided. In nearly every market in which they plant themselves, Walmart siphons away business from local establishments and ultimately causes their closure.

Considering Walmart's abysmal labor and environmental record, I am still in shock that this corporation has so many cheerleaders, especially on GGW.

by John M on Mar 31, 2011 11:58 am • linkreport

This site is low-density suburban, and there are no other businesses nearby. According to google maps it is open land. I do not think you realize how remote this area appears to be.

When you go to Walmart you usually buy a lot of this and that -- food, shampoo, sporting goods, storage bins, vacuum cleaner bags, etc. Usually it is too much to carry on foot. An obvious complementary use is a sit-down restaurant. There are none in Ward 7 that I can think of.

Hate to say is, but a strip mall makes sense here. Let the urban design come later when the corner is better established.

by goldfish on Mar 31, 2011 11:58 am • linkreport

I don't understand why a car-oriented WalMart is considered best use of land (DC gov't land!) across from a Metro station. Aren't all Metro stops, especially in DC, supposed to be targeted as high-density residential and commercial?

This smacks of the old "something is better than nothing" excuse that keeps getting us mediocre development.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 31, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

If your answer to every development opportunity is "we'll let someone else build street-facing retail later, when there's more around!" Then you'll never have any street-facing retail.

@freely
You got any real data on how much those street-facing spaces are costing the city lots of money compared to not building any at all?

I mean we are what, 3 years (during the worst economy since the '30s I might add) into a development that is going to stick around for decades to come and you are ready to pronounce it a complete and utter failure? Please.

by MLD on Mar 31, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

MLD,

I am not saying the street retail at DCUSA was a waste of money. I am saying holding all that valuable street frontage purposely vacant while we wait for the non-existant local biz to crop up is an enormous waste of money. Then, when one does crop up, they get a 30% off the top price reduction in rents.

There was approx 40K sq/ft of space set aside and retail rents. Based on the average retail lease rate per sq/ft in DCUSA (non-setasides) they are leaving approximatly half a million a year on the table in subsidized rents. Of course, this is when all the space is 100% leased (currently about 30% leased), which it currently isn't and hasn't been because its permanently on a set aside for this fictional local business. Keeping it perma-empty is costing DC somewhere in the neighborhood of ~1.3 million a year.

The convention center has been open for 8 years and has suffered the same fate.

Yes, a complete failure.

http://newcolumbiaheights.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-small-businesses-and-dcusa-part-1.html

by freely on Mar 31, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

@freely-

Does the Convention Center have vacancies? I could swear they're all occupied, but considering I walk past it everyday: it could just be that I don't pay any attention. Regardless, the bigger issue with that is that the Convention Center's frontage is pretty barren- the streetfront retail looks the same as the streetfront emergency exits.

by Bossi on Mar 31, 2011 1:20 pm • linkreport

I have a vague memory of the Nationals Park stadium also having some street frontage retail along S. Capitol Street that's supposed to be incubators.

I'm not sure why Walmart "should be happy" to do things that it doesn't want to do.

by Fritz on Mar 31, 2011 1:21 pm • linkreport

@MLD: "If your answer to every development opportunity is 'we'll let someone else build street-facing retail later, when there's more around!' Then you'll never have any street-facing retail."

Your view gets a lot more respect when it is backed up by someone willing to invest. Keep in mind that this place is far off the beaten track.

by goldfish on Mar 31, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

There are a number of problems plaguing both DCUSA and the Convention Center. DCUSA's spaces are too large for startups, according to the link freely provided (heh), which creates problems in attracting startups. As for the Convention Center... oy. It's my neighbor, and I've had problems with it ever since I moved here: the storefronts are hidden, I can't figure out how to get into the seemingly always-closed copy shop, its neighborhood is lined with dead storefronts and parking lots, and the facade on ALL sides doesn't engage the street.

I'm still not going to write off DCUSA as a failure, but I will say that the Convention Center needs to get its act together.

Regarding Wal-Mart: if it can avoid the mistakes of these other two locations, I think it has the potential to act as an anchor store for broader development like what is proposed. This would, however, have to be part of an intentional plan for the area.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 31, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

Wa-Mart might not mind a dry cleaner or a UPS store, but they overlap with a lot of normal neighborhood businesses. they actually make an enormous amount of their profits from check cashing fees and wire transfers---that knocks out two kinds of typical neighborhood businesses in DC. This isn't an immigrant neighborhood but could draw from such areas. Given the Metro across the street, the simplest thing would be to orient the store to the street. If you go to older suburbs, this was the norm well into the 50s--supermarkets faced the street, early department stores had entrances on the street, etc. This would be a smart, long-term approach. Wal-Mart typically has more than one entrance, so orient one to the street, with a crosswalk to Metro, and the other to a parking lot. The deck seems like an awkward micromanagement of the site. Instead, leave the strip vacant and DCHA can wait for property values to go up and find someone to build a strip there later. they can plant grass or something in the meantime. It would not be "pretty", but it would be a good investment and it would provide the option of building whatever makes sense in the future and not caring what Wal-Mart wants 9which is to monopolize everything).

Wal-Mart wants no part of helping anyone, so anything that would make this less of a typical sprawlburg store needs to be a requirement.

The idea that an urban designer owns stock in a chain that has been so destructive to communities is just ludicrous to me. The silver lining is that Wal-Mart is running out of options in terms of their future business model. Moving into expensive urban locations will not help their bottom line.

by Rich on Mar 31, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport

Design is important, but Walmart's continued refusal to respect the rights of workers to organize (as well as the negative economic effects it creates as demonstrated by Barry Eidlin, Arindrajit Dube, David Neumark, and others) makes cosmetics meaningless. There is nothing about an anti-worker, wealth extracting business that will make DC greater. Alpert's complete disregard of such substantial issues is as quizzical as it is shameful.

by Mish on Mar 31, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

Mish,

Where do you live? Are you from around here?

I only ask because you don't seem to realize that 3 of the 4 locations Walmart is looking at are complete and utter ghetto wastelands. There is literally nothing there now, no stores, no retail, no mom/pops, only empty lots, abandoned buildings and a nice crime patina on top accrued over the decades its been like this.

So the choice is:

1. Leave these areas as they have been for the past ~4 decades.

2. Start the development cycle?

I am assuming you are going to pick 2, because no one seriously think the status-quo is better than anything.

Knowing that, you can't "force" private developers of your choice to revitalize something. If you could, then it would have been done at some point in the past ~40 years.

Rather, you have to attract the companies which are incredibly few in number that are willing to not only move into undeveloped areas and act as an "anchor" for future development, but you have to find the ones who are willing to move into a combined poor crime filled demographic.

I know of 3 national retailers that do that. All of them are big-box.

Folks like you have to realize that the negotiation as it is, is all one sided in this regard. The District has nothing Walmart needs, Walmart has everything DC wants for these locations.

by freely on Mar 31, 2011 4:38 pm • linkreport

Freely,

It's true that Walmart's proposed locations aren't doing so hot. That's because more than half of DC is need of comprehensive economic rehabilitation. The problems don't exist because of a want for Walmart. And the hurdles the local economy face aren't going to be swept away by zoning in a company that uses all its profits to grow its overseas slave-labor supply chain. As I mentioned, researchers of a diverse variety have shown how Walmart hurts both the community it moves into and the greater economy.

What DC needs is neither of the shit-brained options you've presented but an in-depth, well-crafted economic plan focused on training the workforce and building and maintaining working infrastructure. Walmart, pleasing pedestrian environment or not, is not going to cut it.

by Mish on Mar 31, 2011 5:07 pm • linkreport

@John M "The notion that Walmart can or will HELP local businesses is naive and misguided. In nearly every market in which they plant themselves, Walmart siphons away business from local establishments and ultimately causes their closure."

Walmarts are already here. DC residents by the thousands go out to MD and VA to shop at them already. Can you explain how that's hurt local business? Or are you limited to copy/pasting soundbites?

@Mish, where is your computer made?

by Bob See on Mar 31, 2011 7:22 pm • linkreport

It's laughable to use 'engage the street' and Walmart in the same sentence. Yeah, I shop at big box stores from time to time, but they are so anathema to what makes a city a city that it's beyond ridiculous. It's not just that it's a chain (ha, how quaint to describe Walmart thusly), but rather it's the sheer scale of it.

by Jazzy on Mar 31, 2011 8:41 pm • linkreport

Check out the neighborhood ...


View Larger Map

I do not think many people "get" this area, because most have never been there. This is nothing like downtown. There is no shopping; no restaurants (nor in the rest of ward 7). Not many will cross the street from the Metro station because the traffic is so bad. A lot of the business will come from commuters from Central Ave and points east.

There are no plans for broader development for this area. There is already a number job training programs in the numerous Ward 7 and 8 recreation and community centers, but no jobs. Walmart employs such people with low skills (and not repeat worn-out rhetoric): a job is the real job training.

by goldfish on Apr 1, 2011 9:16 am • linkreport

@Bob See:

Yes, I'm sure plenty of former suburbanites drive out to Alexandria to visit Walmart. Not that I would ever repeat soundbites, but the talking points against Walmart are tried and true. Why on Earth would a entrepreneur open up a business near or next to one of these monstrosities when they know all too well that they will be undercut on price and nearly everything else. I know Walmart wants to "keep these stores to scale," but what happens when they want to expand or open up more stores in DC? Does Gray et al. send out the welcome wagon again?

For a blog that promotes itself as urbanist and pro-environment, I am truly shocked by the underwhelming scrutiny Walmart has received. As a corporation, they stand against everything urbanists are for, particularly:

-environmental friendliness
-vibrant, dynamic neighborhoods
-urban economic opporunity (not poverty wages like Walmart wants to pay its DC workers)

by John M on Apr 1, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

Bob,

See:

The Wal-Mart Effect, Charles Fishman.

The Effects of Wal-Mart on Local Labor Markets, David Neumark, et al.

And all the good work at http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/retail/

by Mish on Apr 1, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

Dear "Freely",

You claim that "The District has nothing Walmart needs, Walmart has everything DC wants for these locations." Really? Have you been following Walmart's finances of late? Stagnant stock price for years? Negative same store sales for the last 7 quarters? Saturated suburban markets, where the effect of a new Walmart will be to cannibalize sales from existing Walmarts? Walmart desperately needs to get into urban America to be able to meet Wall Street's growth expectations - attempting to grow into India or South Africa won't cut it, because those markets bring nowhere near the kind of return on assets (ROA) that US stores bring. What that means is that (assuming we want Walmart in this city at all), we have plenty of leverage to demand concessions in terms of urban design and anything else. And this is true regardless of whether or not the properties are already commercially zoned and the developers don't need variances etc. Smart community activism can still force them to conform to our vision of the city or stay out. Going to the design of this particular store - just because it's a wasteland now (and I'm taking the word of several of the commenters on this, I've never been there myself), doesn't mean that a sprawling big box store is the best we can do. If it's across the street from a Metro stop, we (and I mean all of us) owe it to future generations to develop something there that is socially and environmentally sustainable. If the city administration does not exercise its power to do so, then any "sustainability" and "smart growth" principles they profess are not worth the paper they're printed on.

by Ward 4 Resident on Apr 1, 2011 1:21 pm • linkreport

@Ward4,

Astounding...I mean really topnotch. I've seen you rail away at these Walmarts for awhile and now you just admit that as a DC resident you've never actually seen the location/area where it is to be developed?

No one is going to take you seriously until you do. You obviously have no idea what you are talking about. Now we know why, because you've never even been there.

And you keep saying "we" can do better, the best that "we" can do. Who are you talking about?

Are you personally funding the proposed redevelopment on these sites?

No.

Is the city funding the redevelopment on these sites?

No.

Has the city decided to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into this site to redevelop it?

No.

Has the approximately half a billion dollars DC has spent on "jobs training" programs the past decade done one iota of good in terms of actully having an employable population?

No.

I don't know what magic money man is going to make an amazing appearance and build some breathtaking replica of Chinatown or Columbia Heights on these particular locations, but please let us know when he shows up because we've been waiting for ~40 years.

Three of these 4 sites have been complete and utter wastelands since the late 60's. You would think that if "we" were going to come to the rescue, "we" would have done it already, let alone at some point in the past decade during the biggest re boom of all time, where appetite for risk was off the charts and an upside down floating goldfish could qualify for a million dollar loan via email.

I am constantly amazed at the congnitive dissonance displayed by folks sometimes. People just "think" development happens in a vacumn and despite the location being the worst possible location and demographic for anyone to build, you think that its some developers duty to build what "YOU" want. Well, thats not the way that it works.

The rest of the taxpaying District population is simply glad "someone" is willing to take an enormous risk on a ghetto wasteland in the hopes that it will plant the seed, and anchor additional future development that over the course of decades will transform the area, and that it will provide hundreds of unskilled labor jobs that this area and its enormous illiterate demographic sorely needs.

by freely on Apr 1, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

@freely: I do float, sometimes even upside down. But nobody ever offered me a million dollar loan.

by goldfish on Apr 1, 2011 3:02 pm • linkreport

heheh...sorry. No reference to you. My nieces goldfish just went belly up yesterday much to her dismay and it was the first visual that came to mind.

by freely on Apr 1, 2011 3:08 pm • linkreport

Paris gets La Defense, Washington gets Wal Mart.

These unused metro stops are exactly the sort of sites planned high-rise perimeter concentrations are suited for. It just takes a little more imagination than DC has.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 4, 2011 12:09 pm • linkreport

"Paris gets La Defense, Washington gets Wal Mart."

...Along with height limits and boring boxy buildings.

by ceefer66 on Apr 4, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

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