I wrote a post a week ago about how important communication is in achieving high quality urban design. It included the example of Independence Boulevard in Charlotte, which has been transformed from a main road to a highway. This week, along this road, where many local businesses once were, a new Walmart had its grand opening. It has received a lot of local press, and everyone is asking the same question – is this good for the area?
Of course, my gut reaction is no. Absolutely not. Walmart is never good for a neighborhood. While the local media asked the question, they continued to paint the issue in a mostly positive light. Check out a clip here: http://swfs.bimvid.com/bimvid_player-3_2_7.swf?x-bim-callletters=WCCB Jobs, convenience, tax money, increased property values, and advertisement are all arguments. Educated in urban regeneration, and very much aware that bringing new life to an area is extremely challenging, I had to think: am I missing something? Is it possible for a big box store to be a good thing for a local community and the city?
So my husband and I went to a check it out. A grand opening of Walmart is something I never saw myself attending, but I did, and wasn’t surprised to see the parking lot packed. I assume people were at Walmart for the same reason they always are: a big selection at the lowest prices. There is a whole argument that underlies this debate that I will not go into here. But unlike other big box retailers, Walmart creates a debate over workers benefits and rights, specifically unionization and healthcare. Let’s just say boycotting was the thing to do in college. I never did, but never really set out to shop there either. I definitely received a stink eye or two for not jumping on the band wagon. So now, when I hear that Walmart is providing jobs for the area at the very least I’m skeptical.
What I really care about is how a store like Walmart affects the local neighborhood and city from a physical standpoint. Here are the given urban design and planning disadvantages of having a store like Walmart in your community, no matter where it is:
A Killer of Local Business
It is impossible for local stores to stay in business anywhere near Walmart. It sells everything for way less expensive that any independent business could ever compete with. It succeeds on the economy of scale: huge amounts of cheap goods made in China with lower overall overhead costs. Local and family owned businesses that have been at the heart of communities all over America are put to death within months of a Walmart opening their doors. Some might say this is progress. I say it is taking away the unique identity, heart, and economic stability of a neighborhood. Instead of profit being put back into the community, it goes to Walmart headquarters in Arkansas and manufacturers in China. Local businesses are something we should always fight for.
A Killer of the Environment
The carbon footprint of Walmart has to be enormous. The shipping of products across the globe and their distribution across the country rely on fossil fuels. The farther products have to travel, the more environmentally unfriendly an organization is. The large size of the store and even larger size of the parking lot is, in many cases paving over green fields and adding, and at the very least, maintaining the heat index and water runoff issue that over-urbanized environments create.
A Killer of the Pedestrian Streetscape
You can not walk to Walmart. Well you can, but not comfortably. There are very few pedestrian connections to their surroundings, the parking lot is usually too big, and customers are encouraged to buy large amounts, which means they can’t carry their shopping home. A Walmart in a neighborhood encourages more people to drive to purchase their daily necessities, even if they could walk. More driving = less walking = poorer health.
A Charlotte resident might say to me…Erin, there weren’t any local businesses there before it was built. Isn’t something better than nothing? No, what’s best is to get it right. I have watched Independence Boulevard go from a busy road lined with business after business to deserted buildings and plots of land. Some of these businesses were chains, but many were local. Part of this transition was because investment moved to other parts of the city, as they often do. I personally believe that the introduction of new urbanism and mixed-use commercial shopping destinations was partly responsible for this. After all, Independence Boulevard has been very car centric.
But the city of Charlotte missed an opportunity that made sure that businesses never had the ability to ever prosper along Independence Boulevard again…they turned it into a highway. Such a missed opportunity, and so sad. The city has permanently segregated neighborhoods from each other and killed the possibility of a mixed-use, pedestrian environment that could serve local residents in an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable way. They were short-sighted. Being patient and committing investment into this Charlotte artery could have revived the whole area to be the new “it place” in the city. It was before, it could have been again.
I was shocked to find that the city of Charlotte planning department designated this area as a transit-oriented and mixed-use development in its 2009 Independence Boulevard Concept Area Action Plan. TOD cannot work, and certainly not reach its full potential next to a highway with no tram line and pedestrian routes. Additionally, there is no way that a Walmart is an example of a business that can help foster a TOD development. Click here to read more. The city has certainly let the city and local neighborhood down.
So yes, there were no local businesses there before this Walmart. But with the fate the highway has sealed, I would argue it would have been better for the community to be planted with local tree specimens and turned into a green lung along the highway and a park for local residents. Something is not better than nothing. Independence Blvd. should have been revived as a true boulevard…a tram line, buses, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists together. This Walmart will only suck business away from local stores across the entire area, including Monroe Road, Eastway Drive, and Central Avenue.
When I visited the Walmart, it was like every other Walmart. But here are some particular urban design details I will share. Some make me laugh…my favorite? The sidewalk to nowhere.
The Independence Blvd. Walmart fails on all three counts: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economical sustainability.
Finally, here is a shout out to my favorite local business on Independence Blvd. As one of the last long-standing Charlotte landmarks, it is where my parents used to date in the early 60s. Good ole’ South 21 Drive In. We haven’t had to seal its coffin just yet…