Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.

Wal-Mart is coming to DC, and residents who value vibrant urban places should worry.  The Arkansas-based retailer is notorious for constructing large single-story boxes surrounded by oceans of surface parking.  That format is antithetical to reviving neighbor­hoods and activating street life. But Wal-Mart’s entry into DC doesn’t have to be that way.

One of Wal-Mart’s proposed locations is a collection of 4 DC-owned gravel parking lots at the corner of New Jersey Avenue NW and H Street NW. Together these lots comprise 161,670 square feet of undeveloped land.  This land includes what used to be the 800 block of 1st Street NW, originally in the L’Enfant Plan, but closed several decades ago.

The Office of Planning’s 2006 NoMA Vision Plan and Development Strategy recommends restoring 1st Street NW to its original purpose.  This is an area where the Office of Planning, the Committee of 100, and Greater Greater Washington likely agree.  If the District sells these lots, it must restore and retain 1st Street.

The city should combine and rearrange its lots into two lots, each flanking a side of the restored 1st Street.  The western lot will be contain about 47,650 square feet of land and the eastern lot will contain about 79,100 square feet of land.  The eastern lot would be suitable for Wal-Mart, since the chain is looking to build a store as small as 80,000 square feet.  A store spanning two floors, much like the Target at DC USA, would obviously double the space to nearly 160,000 square feet.

A Wal-Mart at this location will require the consent of the of District government in selling District land.  If we sell the land out of desperation, no questions asked, Wal-Mart will build the cheapest and fastest store it knows best: a big box surrounded by an ocean of parking entirely incompatible with the livable and walkable neighborhoods DC wants.  It is a mistake we will regret for decades to come.

Since the land belongs to District residents, we have a right to demand that the Council take care when disposing of it.  We should condition the land sale on good urbanist principles, that is, building to the property lines, burying any parking, and providing a mixture of uses (offices, housing, etc.) beyond just a regular store.  If structured properly we have the chance to transform a gravel parking lot into a development that, like DC USA, can transform the area around it for the better.

This type of mixed-use development has proven profitable elsewhere in the city.  At this location, which is within sight and walking distance of the Capitol, Wal-Mart can undoubtedly earn a handsome profit building a multi-story, mixed-use project.  The company will also benefit from displaying a positive case study close to Congress.

With good design, city residents and Wal-Mart can both come out ahead.