The Pullman Wal-Mart: One Step Forward, One Step Back
I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but a story on the design of a new Wal-Mart approved for the Pullman neighborhood on Chicago's south side described my reaction in rosier terms than I intended. Perhaps because an urbanist organization might be expected to reject a typical Wal-Mart design out of hand — and i didn't do that in this case — the story in the Architect's Newspaper suggested CNU had expressed its general approval of the project. Not so.
Since my assessment was based on a quick viewing of the project's site plan (above), it was an informal assessment, not a formal CNU review. And I'd describe my reaction as "decidedly mixed but encouraging." I'll include the complete message I shared with ArchPaper so you can judge for yourself (and because I think there's much to learn here from a look at the details of the project.)
Just to be sure the wrong message doesn't come through: the design for the Pullman Wal-Mart doesn't come close to qualifying as New Urbanism. The most prominent part of the plan — the Wal-Mart itself — follows a standard auto-oriented suburban format, with a building set back from the street and a large parking lot in "the front yard." It is incompatible with nearby walkable urban neighborhoods. Even where developers insist on sizable parking lots, there are far better strategies for integrating large retailers in urban neighborhoods — and I describe one of them in my assessment.
But the project is more than just big-box retail. At build-out, it will include more than 1000 units of homes and townhouses on what appear to be traditional urban blocks. That's unusual for a Wal-Mart and deserves to be recognized as a positive step, albeit one that's not so well integrated with the other elements of the plan.
Here's an image from ArchPaper:
And here's the qualified assessment that I shared with the paper:
Judging from the site plan, Wal-Mart shows signs of learning and taking steps — just not enough of them — in inserting its projects into urban neighborhoods. John [Norquist, CNU President and CEO,] actually just visited a Wal-Mart in Long Beach, CA that is featured in our Greyfields to Goldfields book on retrofitting dead and dying malls into walkable mixed-use urban developments. And John said it has an entrance right on an urban sidewalk and is a sound contributor to its urban neighborhood. And that project was probably at least a decade ago, so Wal-Mart shouldn't overlook lessons from its own projects.
In Pullman, the traditional blocks of bungalows and townhouses appear to extend the pattern of Pullman and should be appreciated as a thoughtful transition between the existing neighborhoods and the new stores. But there's also a quite abrupt transition between these traditional residential blocks and the fairly conventional suburban layout of the big box stores.
To create a more enduring and valuable setting for long-term growth, Wal-Mart could have worked to continue the pattern established in the residential areas and to have their stores act more like traditional urban department stores, having the building footprint extend to the perimeter of a city block with store windows and a human-scaled facade treatment adding life to the sidewalk experience. Wal-Mart would have insisted on ample parking, but that could be handled on individual blocks too.
John noticed how the residential street at bottom right could extend as a real city street past the front doors of the big stores. That's what the City of Milwaukee got the developer of a Wall-Mart at Midtown Center in Milwaukee to do — extend a few city streets through the heart of a former mall property. And Wal-Mart is now on one of those streets. Across the street is a city block that's now a parking lot, but with more of a continuous curb and sidewalks on both sides of the street, not the interruptions of a dozen parking lanes, as in the Pullman plan. As values rise, those blocks can then be converted to more intensive uses, perhaps a structured parking lot with retail below as you now find at a lot of town center retrofits such as Belmar outside Denver or Bayshore outside Milwaukee.
The Architect's Newspaper coverage includes photos I didn't see and they highlight the problematic aspects of the project, specifically areas of low-rise retail where parking dominates and traditional block structure and pedestrian environments are degraded. The takeaway: Wal-Mart is taking steps to be a better urban neighbor but this is far from a model project.
Images via Architect's Newspaper.
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