Walmart’s proposed store on East Capitol Street, adjacent to the Capitol Heights Metro station, has many residents excited for its food and other products, but others concerned about its design, which looks a lot like a school and doesn’t engage the street.
This site, alone among the four Walmart proposals, is public land. The independent DC Housing Authority owns the property. It has an interest in maximizing its profit to be able to create as much affordable housing as possible, but it also has a duty to help the neighborhood become better, to fulfill its mission of “enhancing the quality of life in the District of Columbia.”
Why is it important to engage the street, anyway? This site is right around a Metro station, making it an ideal spot for a growing commercial district to serve the neighborhood’s retail needs. A Walmart provides a lot of goods, but people also need some specialty goods and a wide range of services.
If the Walmart creates a forbidding pedestrian environment, it will make adjacent spaces less appealing for others to open shops. On the other hand, if its design encourages walking to, from, and around the Walmart, it will make it easy for someone shopping at the Walmart to also run across the street to patronize a beauty shop, specialty retail, or a cafe that complements the Walmart and contributes to a strong commercial district.
A professional urban designer, DC resident, and Walmart stock owner who nevertheless did not want to be named submitted a plan for how Walmart can best encourage small, noncompeting businesses and create a more pleasing design as well. Between the big box store and East Capitol street, it could create a frontage of “incubator space,” small storefronts that it can rent to appropriate, DC resident-owned small businesses.
Meanwhile, the eastern half of the site, closest to the Metro, can serve as parking, but should be designed to allow future residential with parking below. This will not only bring more customers to the Walmart but take advantage of the Capitol Heights Metro, just across the street from there, and contribute to a mixed-use district.
With parking under, above and behind the store, and shops oriented to the side, the block would become much more a part of the neighborhood compared to the fairly bland and inactive façade in Walmart’s plan.
Would Walmart do this? Since DCHA owns the land, they can attach a variety of conditions to the deal. So can the Zoning Commission, since this property will go through a Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.
Walmart should also be happy to do this. The plan wouldn’t take away from Walmart’s own store, and would likely even enhance its profitability by bringing more customers to this area to shop at the other businesses.
Plus, it fits in with many of the values Walmart now espouses. The Walmart Visitor Center, located in Sam Walton’s original variety store on the Town Square in Bentonville, Arkansas, includes displays on the history of Walmart’s growth and Sam Walton’s values.
One display describes the Walton International Scholarship Program (WISP) “which was created to promote democracy and free enterprise in Latin America by enabling qualified low-income students to earn a college degree in the United States, learn first-hand about individual initiative and free enterprise, and experience the benefits of living in an open and democratic society. The ultimate goal is for students to return to their countries with the skills and the desire to have a positive impact on the private sector of their nations’ economies.”
Walmart can start encouraging “individual initiative and free enterprise” right here in the US by designing their Ward 7 store with a small business incubator. It’ll be good for DC’s economy, good for residents, good for the neighborhood’s urban design, and good for Walmart.