For years, Montgomery County officials have been trying to remake Rockville Pike's retail strip into an urban boulevard. Yet thanks to a fluke in zoning, Walmart could drop a standard suburban big-box in the middle of everything.
The new Walmart would be located at Rockville Pike and Bou Avenue, just north of Montrose Road in the Pike Center shopping center. According to the Washington Post, the store would be considerably smaller than traditional Walmarts, with about 80,000 square feet of floor space. By comparison, a typical modern supermarket is about 60,000 square feet, while larger Walmart Supercenters can be as large as 185,000 square feet. Renderings from the Post show the Walmart displacing an existing row of shops in the strip mall, which include national chains like Office Depot and CiCi's Pizza in addition to local businesses like Bagel City.
This would be the third Walmart in Montgomery County, after an existing store in Germantown and another proposed store on Connecticut Avenue in Aspen Hill, which we wrote about last month. But unlike those stores, which are far from Metro, the proposed Rockville Walmart is a half-mile from the Twinbrook station. Despite County Executive Ike Leggett's assertion that the store is "consistent" with the county's goal of building around public transit, this proposal completely undermines those intentions.
Plans by the City of Rockville and Montgomery County envision Rockville Pike as an urban boulevard with tall buildings against the street, not behind big parking lots. By bringing shops, housing and offices together near Metro stations along the Pike, planners hope to make it easier for people to walk, bike or take transit to their destination, providing alternatives to driving and reducing congestion.
In order to do so, higher-density development has been approved around the Twinbrook and White Flint Metro stations, the latter of which was written up in the New York Times as a model for suburban redevelopment. Residential and office towers have already begun sprouting up along Rockville Pike. The proposed Walmart, however, sits along a short stretch of the Pike that falls under a completely different plan that was drafted in 1992 and still allows strip shopping centers.
This kind of development is exactly what the community is trying to prevent from being built along Rockville Pike in the future. It'll only encourage more people to drive to Rockville Pike rather than taking advantage of other modes of transportation, creating more traffic. But it's likely that Walmart chose to locate in Pike Center because it was easy to build a conventional store there, without going for a time-consuming zoning change or building in a more expensive, urban format that doesn't just cater to drivers.
However, two of the eight stores Walmart plans to build in Greater Washington will be built in an urban fashion. Their proposed store on New Jersey Avenue in the District will sit at the base of an apartment building, while a new store in Tysons Corner, which is undergoing a transformation similar to Rockville Pike, will be part of a larger complex with a gym and offices. Ironically, those two branches and the one on Rockville Pike are all being developed by JBG Rosenfeld, whose vice president Jay Klug called Walmart "pretty enlightened" about building stores to fit an urban context.
Walmart has the right to build as they see fit so long as the zoning allows them to do it. Yet their store as proposed is completely inappropriate for Rockville Pike as it tries to become a denser, more urban corridor. Last week, the Montgomery County Council introduced a bill requiring big-box stores to craft community benefits agreements to reduce any negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhood. They might also want to figure out how to make this big-box store fit into the new Rockville Pike before it brings down one of the most ambitious suburban redevelopment projects in the country.