The Curtis Chevy car barn. Image from Google Street View.

Ever since Wal-Mart announced earlier this week that they intend to build four stores in the District of Columbia, the question on the mind of urbanists has been: What will they look like?

Can Wal-Mart be fit into an urban context? Will we be getting walkable, transit oriented stores like the Columbia Heights Target, or the typical sprawly suburban model with acres of parking out front?

In all four cases the architecture is still in preliminary stages, making it impossible to obtain complete site plans. However, after speaking with the developers working on each of the projects, some information is nonetheless becoming available.

This post will be the first in a multi-part series discussing the urban design of each of the four stores. First up: the location in Brightwood, on the former site of Curtis Chevrolet, on upper Georgia Avenue.

Average suburban Wal-Marts often occupy sites with over 20 acres of land, but the Curtis Chevy property is barely four acres. Clearly, Wal-Mart won’t be able to build its usual model at this location.

Dick Knapp of Foulger-Pratt Company, the developer for the Brightwood site, confirms as much, saying “This is not your father’s Wal-Mart. They’re moving in to tighter spaces and they’re going vertical.”

The plans would replace the old car dealership buildings with a new 102,000 square-foot Wal-Mart store. The only way to fit that large a store on that small a property is to eliminate surface parking and bring the building right up to the street, so that’s what will happen.

It isn’t yet clear whether the entire store will be able to fit into a single story or whether a second floor will be necessary, but in any event the parking will be located in an underground garage directly below the store. The entrance will face the sidewalk 20-30 feet back from the curb. That will make for either a comfortably wide sidewalk or a narrow landscaped strip.

When asked about preservation of the existing buildings, Knapp responded that due to a now-canceled redevelopment plan for the property that would have replaced the car dealership with 399 apartments, Foulger-Pratt has already received city approval to demolish all the buildings on the site except the façade of the car barn, a historic structure used by the dealership to store vehicles. Wal-Mart is hoping to obtain permission to take down that façade as well, but such permission has not yet been secured.

Unfortunately, the development won’t be mixed-use. If Foulger-Pratt would stick a few floors of apartments above the retail uses, that would add new customers for the surrounding businesses and help revitalize central Brightwood as a place to live, not only to shop. It’s regrettable that the plan misses such an opportunity.

The goods news, though, is that Wal-Mart appears dedicated to providing a fundamentally urban store at this location. It will greet the street and it will not have any surface parking out front. These are real victories for the community, and represent a real evolution for Wal-Mart as a corporation.

Important questions do remain. Will the car barn facade be preserved? Will Wal-Mart’s frontage along Georgia Avenue be an uninterrupted blank wall, or will the architects take steps to give it pedestrian-scaled details? What sort of effect will Wal-Mart have on Brightwood’s independent businesses, and what will be their labor practices?

But from an urban design standpoint, we may be looking at one of the most progressive and walkable Wal-Mart designs in America. That, at least, is good news.