Wednesday, October 19, 2011

proposed walmart undermines rockville pike redevelopment plans

Rockville Strip Mall
A Walmart could replace several shops at Pike Center in Rockville. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

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.
View From 14th Floor Balcony, Gallery at White Flint
A new Walmart would undermine plans to revitalize Rockville Pike. 

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.


Gary said...

So they want it to be like Arlington? Let's compare Washington Blvd in Arlington to Rockville Pike.

Rosslyn to Ballston is about 3.75km; a total of 4 stops, furthest is Rosslyn to Court House at 1.2 km (that's 3/4 mile).

A similar four-stop Red Line sequence, Grovesnor to Rockville, is about 7.3km: 2.0 from Grovesnor to White Flint, 1.9 from White Flint to Twinbrook, and 3.4 from Twinbrook to Rockville. The closest stops (at the heart of this WalMart proposal) are over 1.25 miles apart.

No one can take this urban boulevard seriously unless there's transit that actually supports it. In the absence of transit and transit-oriented development we'll see things like this Wal*Mart proposal ... on a stretch of R'ville pike that really does not need thousands more cars on weekends.

Dan Reed said...

There are plans to run Bus Rapid Transit in dedicated lanes on Rockville Pike, so that'll help for those trips that are in-between Metro stations.

Critically Urban said...

BRT or light rail in the median.

Gary, your argument is not really apt. Even the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is not something you want to walk. The distance between most of the stations is too far to comfortably walk on a regular basis. The most important aspect of it is that there are several dense neighborhoods clustered around individual Metro station along one route. The distance between stations is still too great to be convenient in most cases and if you live at the Ballston station it's unlikely you'll want to walk to Clarendon, just as if you lived at Twinbrook station you wouldn't want to walk to White Flint. It's the neighborhoods that count, not the number of stations or the length of the corridor. Of course a line must be drawn somewhere, but believe me, this isn't it.

This Wal-Mart would be essentially across Bou avenue from a Target store.

Dan Reed said...

I agree, but what makes Arlington work is that those dense urban neighborhoods are adjacent to one another, so you could walk between Ballston and Clarendon, even if you don't have to. Ditto for, say, Petworth, Columbia Heights and U Street in DC. It'll be a challenge to create a similar chain of communities along Rockville Pike, especially when you have big roads like Montrose Parkway serving as a division between Twinbrook and White Flint.

Isayaah Parker said...

Why not just put the Walmart in White Flint mall? Borders just closed and they could may be put it there, granted they'd have to expand the space and relocate some of the surrounding shops. Besides, considering how long it is taking for one Walmart (there's 5 planned in DC) to begin construction in DC, this is just a pipe dream. A construction worker won't show up in any of our lifetimes. Plenty of time to fight it and seeing as though DC residents are successfully keeping Walmart from opening doors in many DC neighborhoods, I'm sure Rockville could do the same.

Richard Layman said...

The point that Jay Klug of JBG misses is that Walmart isn't enlightened about urbanism so much as they want to be in urban markets/locations.

What has changed with Walmart is that they are now agnostic about how to integrate the store into the environment.

While I think their default position is still suburbanistic, they have no problem working in mixed use, multiuse configurations _now_ which wasn't the case before.

BUT THIS IS COMPLETELY DEPENDENT ON THE DEVELOPER, NOT WALMART. If a developer like JBG, urban-oriented, gives them a proposal that is mixed use for a site they want, they'll take it.

If a developer doesn't have any commitment at all to urban oriented development gives them a proposal, in a place they want to be, they'll take that too, and exert no influence whatsoever to get the developer to do mixed use multistory.

FWIW, I do think that stores like this can be integrated into transit-proximate locations, such as how Target is at DC/USA. (I don't think that project is perfect, but it leverages transit access in a way that limits auto trips and that's great.)

You should read the report on the Walmart matter on Georgia Ave. as it makes a lot of transportation demand management recommendations regarding Walmart and urban service matters.

Dr. F. said...

Kornheiser was recently kvetching about the new WalMart replacing his beloved Bagel City.

Critically Urban said...

dan, I understand your point. Mine is that people *don't* usually walk between the Metro station in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. It would take a long time. The Metro stations on the Rockville Pike are further apart, but again my point is that they'll work because of the neighborhoods that develop around the stations, not that they're all close together. Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton, Friendship Heights are all examples of standalone Metro stations that thrive despite not being directly adjacent to more than one station.

Critically Urban said...

I should have added that I don't believe the success of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor relied much on the fact that the Metro station are closer together than they are along the Rockville Pike. I believe the success relied mostly on the fact that neighborhoods were zoned to allow dense development to occur around the Metro stations that exist. Sure it'd be nice to have the station density that central DC has. But station density is not why Rosslyn-Ballston developed as it did.

That said, because of the distance between Metro station on the R-B corridor, it is good to have bikesharing appearing to shrink the effective distances and link the communities. The Rockville Pike will need BRT or light rail PLUS bikesharing to better link them.