Posts about Big Box Retail
Topher Mathews found out what Vornado plans for the now-closed Georgetown Park Mall. They hope to attract 2 restaurants for the side of the building overlooking the C&O Canal and have lined up a number of large chain stores for the rest: TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, Michaels and an expanded J. Crew. Is this news welcome or disappointing?
The chain retailers will each have entrances on the street rather than an interior mall-like layout, as was the case before. That makes sense because Georgetown already has a main street to walk along and see shops: M Street.
Malls were designed to replicate the main street experience; when there's already a main street, it's just a less-trafficked side street, and its 3 levels, winding paths and dark layout made it inconvenient and unappealing.
Mathews isn't so enthusiastic about which stores will fill the space. He says:
Essentially, when Vornado is done with it, the bulk of the mall will have been converted into a couple big box stores that have all the charm and destination-appeal of Rockville Pike.Design is the biggest problem with most big box stores
The biggest problem with Rockville Pike, though, is its urban form. Each shopping center has a giant parking lot between itself and the road, and there often aren't any connections at all between centers. That means it's very difficult to shop there any way other than driving to one center, parking, driving to another, and so on.
The fact of modern retail is that for most physical products, people want to go to a large store with a lot of selection. It'd be nice to have a small crafts store near my house, but the fact is that I don't go to such a store often enough to support having it, and the individual items don't cost that much (or if they do, it's cost-prohibitive for many people).
A small crafts store would not have very many different kinds of fabric, picture frames or Christmas ornaments. People don't want to travel from one small store to another in different neighborhoods to hunt for what they want; they'll either go to a superstore or shop online. I've tried the Paper Source in Georgetown several times for the types of items it has, and sometimes found great things there, but also sometimes made a trip without finding what I needed.
There's no Michaels in DC today. The nearest one is in Seven Corners, and the next closest in Rockville, on the Pike. Having one in Georgetown would let people fulfill their craft needs in a place where they could drive, take the Circulator or Metrobus, or bike or walk from many neighborhoods.
What's bad about many of the big box plans for Ward 5 is not that large stores are coming to Ward 5, but that they're building suburban format stores. That Home Depot could take up a tenth of the space if it had a garage and a multi-story building. The rest of the land could house people who can shop there and take the Metro to work. The Aldi doesn't contribute to the nearby walkable neighborhood, and the New York Avenue Walmart is the worst design of DC's 6 proposed stores.
Large discount stores may not be best for the tax base
On the other hand, some of these new stores may bring in less tax revenue per square foot than more upscale stores. At one point, DC was considering a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) deal to lure Bloomingdale's instead of TJ Maxx. It didn't seem to make sense at first: if Bloomingdale's would pay less rent, then how would a TIF pay for itself, but if it brings in more, why does Vornado need any kind of incentive?
Someone directly involved with TIFs, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record, explained that a store like Bloomingdale's actually would pay less rent, but generates more sales tax revenue. I wasn't able to see detailed numbers to know if that makes the TIF worthwhile, but it's certainly possible that one store could have a larger number of dollars in gross sales but lower profits.
Stores with cheaper goods not only make their profits by selling more, but also by having fewer staff and less elaborate merchandise displays. Those savings could help them afford higher rent but don't affect the sales taxes the city brings in (and cut down on potential jobs for residents).
That may or may not have made any kind of tax break worthwhile, but it does point out a paradox in retailing: what's best for a landlord may not be the same as what's best for the District budget. And as Mathews notes, what's best for a neighborhood may be different than either of those.
3 of the 6 stores will be unquestionably urban. 1 will be a hybrid with some urban characteristics. 2 will be almost completely suburban.
Gonzaga: The closest store to downtown is suitably the most urban. With apartments above and smaller-format retailers lining the street, Walmart's H Street location is a model of what urban big boxes should be.
Fort Totten: Almost as good as the Gonzaga design, this store is inferior only because it's in a much more isolated location, and because the building materials appear to be somewhat cheaper. But still, the design is unquestionably strong.
Georgia Avenue: Although this design lacks the mixed-use amenities of the previous two, it's still primarily urban, with greater emphasis on pedestrian access than vehicular. It greets the street and parking is provided underground. It's a reasonable choice for a neighborhood that has not seen much investment in recent years.
Skyland Town Center: Resembling something one might expect to see in Gaithersburg, this location is a bit like a shopping mall; it's internally walkable, but poorly connected to any surrounding neighborhoods.
Capitol Gateway: The farthest out proposal from downtown is clearly primarily suburban. It's a strip mall. But it does take a few tentative steps towards walkability, with both street-facing and parking lot-facing entrances.
New York Avenue: The intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road is probably DC's most car-oriented corner. And so it was predictable that Walmart would choose it for a store, and propose a totally suburban design.
The store faces away from the biggest street and fronts onto a big open-air parking lot. The only indication that this location is in a city instead of an exurb is that the Walmart will be stacked on top of another big box store (probably a Home Depot).
Is DC a testing ground?
Each of the 6 stores has such unique characteristics that one wonders if Walmart is using DC as an experiment to see which types of layouts work in the urban environment. By comparing the sales at the more urban stores to the more suburban ones, Walmart will gain many valuable insights.
Inevitably, Walmart will probably want to establish stores in other central cities around the country. The DC example will very likely influence the design of those future stores.
All images in this post are from Walmart.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
The Democratic at-large candidates for DC Council, incumbent Vincent Orange, and challengers Sekou Biddle, E. Gail Anderson Holness, and Peter Shapiro, talked about transportation, housing, land use and some social issues at last night's forum at the Black Cat on 14th Street.
Here is the full video from the event:
Small business: As in many forums, most candidates gave few specifics, and in most cases didn't sharply disagree with one another. For example, I asked all candidates to talk about a time they'd helped a local business directly. I asked this first of Vincent Orange, who often touts his work bringing Home Depot to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro area but when talking about small business, speaks much more in generalities.
Orange and the other candidates launched into generic, prepared statements about the value of small business. Sekou Biddle's answer, that he helps them most of all by patronizing them, was the most responsive. Orange was, however, able to name a lot of local businesses once pressed.
Affordable housing: Peter Shapiro had thoughtful recommendations for how to promote housing affordability, drawing on his experience with Arts District Hyattsville when he served in Prince George's County. Perhaps because of his experience as an elected official in the past, Shapiro gave more specifics about actions he has taken or policies he would implement on this and some other issues.
All candidates raised their hands when asked if they would restore the Housing Production Trust Fund; hopefully Orange, in this budget cycle, and whoever wins the race, in the future, follows through on that promise.
Ethics: Shapiro went the furthest on campaign finance reform, criticizing the current council for not taking stronger steps and arguing it should pursue a public financing system for elections. Biddle called for reforms to money order contributions, the source of the latest scandal.
Orange, as he has in the past, emphasized his advocacy for banning outside employment for councilmembers, but hasn't agreed to support limits on corporate contributions. He defended his decision not to cosponsor Mary Cheh's recent campaign finance bill as "self-serving," since Cheh holds other jobs as a law professor at GW and teaching bar review courses. (Tommy Wells, the one co-sponsor, does not have any outside employment).
Transportation: During a section on transportation, it came out that of the candidates, only Sekou Biddle is a member of Capital Bikeshare, and only he and Peter Shapiro subscribe to Zipcar. Biddle even pulled out his CaBi key, on his keychain, and his Zipcar membership card right on the stage.
I asked candidates about how we could help cyclists and drivers better understand each other's needs and concerns. Without being "gotcha" about it, I wanted to give Vincent Orange a chance to speak to what he had learned from the January 1st episode where he parked in the 15th Street bike lane, was called out on Twitter, and apologized. Orange said that he hadn't realized on which side of the white stanchions he should park, and that now he does.
Biddle proposed having driver education include information on how to deal with bicycle infrastructure and people riding bikes. This would only be a small start, since many DC drivers move in from other states, but it was a thoughtful response on the topic.
Biddle was also most able to talk about the role of buses in helping connect communities. I asked candidates to name a bus line that they feel works well in DC, partly to see how many could name a bus line at all. Orange gave an example of a bus line, the X2, but couldn't name it without help from a staffer who shouted it out unprompted.
Holness, marriage, and the Redskins: Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness, generally considered a long-shot candidate, gave some reasons to appreciate her candidacy, but also some reasons for concern. As a resident of Ward 1, she lives in the most urban neighborhood among the candidates, and says she rides a bicycle and takes many forms of transit regularly. She was able to name many bus lines and talk about them in depth.
However, Holness was the only candidate of the four not to encourage Maryland residents to vote to keep the new same-sex marriage law. She also said on last week's WPFW debate that she supports giving land to the Redskins for a practice facility, on the theory that the master plan calls for recreational space.
The plan does ask for recreation space, but intended to serve local residents, not to be a fenced-off facility that only serves a professional team. I pushed on this issue, asking her why she would fulfill a neighborhood request in this way. She didn't have a good answer and seemed confused by the policy details.
The other candidates all reaffirmed their opposition to the practice facility. Orange said he would support bringing the actual team back and potentially using public funds, if it were part of a plan to create a "livable, walkable" community around the stadium as the District is doing at the ballpark.
"Livable, walkable" actually is a phrase Orange spoke at least 5 times over the course of the debate. It's a testament to the phrase Tommy Wells coined for his campaign slogan, and the policies behind it, that Orange has latched on. Hopefully this means he genuinely supports the principles of "livable, walkable" communities; either way, he clearly believes it's a growing political force.
Kwame's revenge: Speaking of Mr. "Livable, Walkable" Wells, the forum's most dramatic moment came near the end, when Orange suggested that Wells should have at least toned down his criticism of Kwame Brown's Lincoln Navigator scandal, to avoid losing his committee and his opportunity to advance his agenda. Shapiro quickly disagreed, arguing that Wells was right to speak up and that it shows the "dysfunction" in the current council that others did not come to his defense.
Did the forum help you make up your mind? What stuck out as most meaningful to you?
The Cafritz development along Route 1 in Riverdale Park is slated to bring the first Whole Foods to Prince George's County. While one neighboring community is trying to cut off access, another sees opportunity in increasing connectivity.
The Riverdale Town council, at first inclined to restrict access to the project only from Route 1, may now see access to the development from the south, along Maryland Avenue, as a chance to open its own town center to additional traffic. This commercial area adjacent to the MARC station, and home to a popular farmers market, has struggled to find tenants. It could become a successful complement to the Cafritz project.
By contrast, University Park wants any new traffic signal on Baltimore Avenue at Van Buren Street to prevent traffic from crossing into its residential streets. Yet access works both ways.
Without such a light, town residents will have to use some part of Route 1 to shop at Whole Foods. And that feeling of being trapped by traffic, which residents have commented on at council meetings, would only grow worse.
Good news on access was heard at Cafritz's presentation last Thursday to the Riverdale Park council. The cost of building a bridge or ramp over the CSX line at the rear of the property is possibly much lower than the $15 million first expected. This would provide access to River Road on the the other side of the tracks, with its significant office developments.
Vehicular access into College Park to the north, along Rhode Island Avenue, may remain a dream. This means that College Park residents from adjoining neighborhoods will have to make a left onto Baltimore Avenue, and another left into the site, to get to the development.
Yes, they can use buses and shuttles, which should be integrated into the design from the outset. Or perhaps they can walk or bike along the trail that the Cafritz development will now complete. But many people who go grocery shopping choose to take their cars. Forcing them all onto arteries won't repeal this preference, but it may make traveling on those arteries more difficult for everyone.
Rather than taking maximum advantage of an opportunity to improve an area that is in dire need of better design, the City of Falls Church settled on a cookie-cutter, big box store when planning for BJ's.
The BJ's Wholesale Club opened last October 9 near Seven Corners to much fanfare. Most of the press around the opening was very positive, though it was built with little regard for future urban design or long-term planning in the area.
The property owner, JBG Properties, and the City of Falls Church announced the original plan two years earlier in October 2008. In that deal, the city agreed to provide $250,000 in annual tax relief to the property owners (totaling approximately $3 million over 12 years). The relief was intended to help offset some of the costs of site preparation, including retaining walls and infill.
At least one Falls Church resident perceived the deal as providing an unfair advantage to a business that doesn't really need it in comparison to some of the small businesses in the area.
The site is approximately 8.5 acres, and the store is reportedly 87,000 square feet, or about 24% of the site area (for comparison, the wildly popular, mixed-use Clarendon Common in Clarendon sits on 10 acres). It is exactly 1 mile from the East Falls Church Metro and is a typical big box retailer, with a large parking lot along the street and a deep setback.
Though tastefully landscaped, the site was formerly forested, and as many as 100 mature trees were sacrificed for the store's construction. As expected, the parking lot was full the first weekend it opened. On the numerous occasions I've passed by there since, I have never seen it more than about 2/3 full and often more than half empty.
As the resident above points out, there is little to no chance Falls Church would have allowed this BJ's near the center of the city. It is in the far southeast corner of the city (map), bordering both Fairfax and Arlington Counties, and away from the "village" area of Falls Church.
One could argue that the BJ's fits into this car-centric area around Seven Corners, which is unlike the center of Falls Church, with its mom-and-pop stores. However, the design could have been somewhat better with minor adjustments and considerably better with significant changes.
One step toward transforming the site to be more pedestrian-friendly could have been siting the building next to the street with a wide, inviting sidewalk and the parking in the rear. Better yet, a few small storefronts could have been integrated along the street as well, lessening the anchor store's isolation and vastly improving the pedestrian experience. Within 1/2 mile of this site are literally hundreds of housing units, primarily multi-family, so a significant density of potential pedestrians exists.
Even more innovative, though, would have been to develop the site completely differently, perhaps with a variety of uses and working on intelligent ways to take advantage of the Metro station just 1 mile away and the density of nearby housing. It could have been the start of a larger transformation for the entire area.
This picture shows the small group of stores just to the west of BJs. When this strip is redeveloped, the setback could be moved closer to the street, improving the pedestrian experience and continuing what could have been a mild transformation had the BJs site been more well designed.
To the east of BJ's is this Jiffy Lube, a fine establishment no doubt, but one that for the time being will detract from improving the streetscape. I am unaware of any current or imminent development efforts in the immediate vicinity of the BJ's.
Presumably Falls Church, with its relatively progressive population and policies, is a strong candidate for innovative suburban land use. In fact, the city has been working with Arlington County on a more progressive, long-term plan for the East Falls Church Metro station area.
In the end, timing likely affected some of the decisions surrounding this property. Because of the recession, Falls Church was desperate for sales tax revenue. If this deal had taken place before the downturn, the city may have had the means to negotiate for a better land use in return for less revenue.
It wouldn't be surprising if, at the end of the 12-year tax break period, the owners either negotiate an extension or simply move to another location. The building itself is single use and couldn't be easily re-purposed, as evidenced by the long-empty Big Lots less than 1000 feet away in the Eden Center.
In retrospect, a few design changes could have been implemented that would have served as a small step towards transforming this area. Unfortunately, that effort was not made and we're left with another disposable big box.
Unless Falls Church and Fairfax County decide to work together to develop a vision for Seven Corners, it will remain a poorly designed, unsafe, and unattractive part of the Washington region.
Yesterday, we discussed the plan for Prince George's County first Whole Foods store. Besides the inappropriate strip mall design, it also contains a huge "buffer" between the development and Route 1, which could fatally damage the ability for this area to be successful.
Both the 2007 and 2008 versions of the project planned for a wooded buffer along Route 1 to separate the development from the single-family homes across the street in affluent University Park.
The current plan removes much of that wooded buffer, but not to create an active streetscape along the main street. Instead, it's been shrunk from the interior edge to make room for more parking lots. If the latest sketches are accurate, there will be only a couple trees saved along Route 1.
It's worth calling into question the provenance of such a buffer in the first place. One assumes it was to be set aside to preserve the wooded view for the 12 to 13 houses across from the property on the west side of Route 1. Those houses are already facing a four-lane arterial highway.
One would have to entertain a willing suspension of disbelief to think those houses are anywhere but on a busy road. Shielding the development from these dozen or so houses would make it nearly impossible for passing traffic to realize there is commercial space behind the trees, and the lack of visibility would almost certainly be a turn-off for business proprietors.
Right now, the proposed development site is zoned R-55 (residential-single-family). Before the Cafritz developers can build any portion of their proposed mixed-use development, they will need to obtain a zoning change from the Prince George's County Planning Board of the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), and from the District Council (which is what the County Council calls itself when it sits as a zoning agency).
The M-NCPPC and the District Council approved a mixed-use town center plan for the Town of Riverdale Park in 2004. This plan covers the commercial areas of the town just south of the Cafritz Property. Thus, one rezoning option that the Cafritz developers would have is to apply to extend the Riverdale Park Mixed Use Town Center (M-U-TC) zone northward, to cover their property. This would allow them to build the Whole Foods along with the other commercial and multifamily residential components of their proposed development.
The Riverdale Park M-U-TC zoning regulations for that portion of Route 1 just south of the Cafritz property specifically prohibit parking between the street and the front of buildings. The intent of those regulations, according to the plan, is "[t]o retain and create a consistent street wall (abutting buildings aligned along a build-to line) that promotes a sense of enclosure (a street room), defines the sidewalk, and frames the street."
Instead of designing its project to follow the streetscaping requirement of the plan, however, the development team uses creative language to explain its intent to sidestep those standards:
[W]e intend to deviate from the Riverdale Park MUTC Plan development district standards in one way. The current MUTC Plan encourages development to create a Route 1 street wall, with buildings tight to the Route 1 sidewalk. We intend to deviate from this pattern primarily because, in order to be compatible and respectful to the existing houses across the street, we are proposing a landscape buffer zone as our transition from Route 1 to our proposed multilevel retail/office buildings. In keeping with the spirit of the Riverdale Park MUTC Plan, our buildings will be tight to the internal sidewalk to create a comfortable and lively pedestrian experience, along our internal streets and not Route 1.These "internal sidewalks" are simply pedestrian walkways alongside their parking lots. The "internal streets" are simply the driveways for the parking lots. By playing fast and loose with language, the proposed plan sounds like it's adhering to good urban design principles, while it's really a standard suburban big-box development.
The Riverdale Park MUTC Plan's build-to line design standard is a "shall" command, which the Plan describes as "mandatory and not discretionary." It says:
All new buildings shall be built within a specified distance (the build-to line) of the face-of-curb depending upon location, plus or minus the allowable variation.In that area of Route 1, the mandatory build-to line is 10-15 feet from the curb, depending on the size of the sidewalk, with a permissible 4-foot variation. Therefore, if Cafritz wishes to obtain the M-U-TC zoning approval necessary to construct its project, the M-NCPPC and District Council should insist that Cafritz's proposed development conform to the mandatory design standards of the Riverdale Park plan for Route 1.
The question is, will they? Unless somebody who becomes a party of record (like a neighborhood association or concerned citizen) raises the issue Even then, if history is any guide, the county will often strain to find a way to either ignore the standard or find a way to grant the developer a departure. But at least if the issue is raised, the M-NCPPC and the District Council will have to address it. The good news is anyone can become a party of record by filling out this form and/or by appearing at the hearing and testifying.
Even then, if history is any guide, the county will often strain to find a way to either ignore the standard or find a way to grant the developer a departure. But at least if the issue is raised, the M-NCPPC and the District Council will have to address it. The good news is anyone can become a party of record by filling out this form and/or by appearing at the hearing and testifying.
A few years ago the idea of a pedestrian friendly big box store was almost unthinkable, but the idea is catching on, with several examples locally and around the country.
In this region, the Columbia Heights Target is an obvious example, but not the only one. We also have the Tenleytown Best Buy, and of course, the proposed downtown Wal-Mart. In the suburbs, Gaithersburg's new urbanist "Washingtonian Center" was an urban big box trail-blazer. Designed and built in the late 1990s, it features what may have been the country's first pedestrian oriented Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, and Kohl's.
Below the fold there are pictures of several other examples from around the country, including a Home Depot in Chicago that puts DC's to shame.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
What if it cost you two cents on the dollar at the discount store to ensure that your neighbor, who works long hours at the store, has adequate health coverage through his employer? What if paying those two cents reduced the number of people relying on Medicaid for health care, and thereby reduced your taxes?
These are among questions the DC Council needs to address before large retailers like Walmart open new stores in the District.
As we debate the need to trim local and national spending, we need to ensure that no one gets off with a free ride, and that includes prosperous corporations that get backdoor subsidies by not providing competitive benefits for their employees. A 2005 study found that the rate of uninsurance and public coverage for the children of Walmart workers was significantly higher than the average for other large retail workers.
This study found that by increasing costs by two pennies on the dollar, Walmart could match the wages and benefits of other big retailers. This would cost $3.66 billion annually. In 2005, Walmart spent $1.5 billion annually on health benefits.
If Walmart were to provide a competitive wage and benefits package, it could mean real savings for the District. A Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services study found, in 2007, that it cost the state $3.7 million annually to provide care to Walmart employees and dependents. Such costs could be significant in the District, where the Mayor has proposed $12 million in cuts this year to health care programs for low-income residents.
While Walmart changed its plan to include a $1,000 contribution from the company to a health reimbursement account, it still has an unusually high out-of-pocket limit. In 2011, Walmart continued to have more employees relying on public care in Wisconsin than any other employer in the state.
The DC Council could require a community impact analysis, like those required in the city of Los Angeles, to determine if Walmart's new benefits plan significantly reduces the burden on taxpayers. Or, the Council could follow New York City's example (see page 196) and mandate that big retailers pay a minimum amount to ensure that their employees have affordable health care.
The Council has a responsibility to protect taxpayers from secret subsidies to huge corporations. And it has the power to do something about it by requiring large retailers to provide adequate wages and health coverage so that it does not force a disproportionate number of employees to rely on public benefits.
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