Thursday, November 1, 2018

Walmart Reimagined

Walmart Reimagined is a terrific initiative for a landowner that has thousands of parcels of incredibly underutilized land. The prospect of turning vast amounts of parking lots and underutilized land into more urban town centers peaked my interest.

A major general merchandising retailer transforming their development model is something to peak the interest of any urbanist or city planner. It would also be a commitment to helping build productive spaces for cities, both in terms of social capital and revenue for cities. But, I fear Walmart's efforts fall a bit short of the actions taken by some other retailers, including Target, Whole Foods or Publix, that have made efforts to introduce a greater urban form as anchor tenants in new developments.

Walmart Reimagined seems more like a consciousness of Walmart that the company has some incredibly wasted land that has a ton of potential which could end up being a great benefit to the company if developed. For that, they should be commended.

In their 'Reimagined Centers", Walmart focuses on adding the categories of Food, Beverage, Wellness, Entertainment and Essential Services. There is added focus on food halls and food trucks, the updating of in-store tenants, container parks, and "Pads and Parks", the open spaces and amenities of each reimagined center. In a time where craft eateries and food halls are all the rage, especially among millennials and wealthier Americans, it's no wonder America's largest retailer is fighting to gain any edge they can. Walmart has seen a drop in its generally moderate income customer base over the past few years, so it's no surprise a move like adding food halls, container parks and craft breweries is intended to attract a key demographic currently underrepresented in Walmart's stores right now. These physical store changes are just one of the reflections of Walmart's larger philosophical changes. So, when "urban" and "authentic" are all the rage, it's too easy and exciting to just add some of it to your stores.

But it's not as exciting as it sounds, at least when considering an example in Garland, Texas.

The land proposed for the "Reimagined" parcel in Garland is currently a vacant field adjacent to Walmart's existing Supercenter. So, it's nothing more than a new real estate development going in next door. Perhaps I expected too much, and that the "Walmart Reimagined" initiative title is too convincing or hopeful.

But let's look a bit more closely at the Garland site. There seem to be a great deal of missed opportunities to really connect the center to its surroundings. Walmart boasts that some stores (not necessarily Garland) will have a "Mobility Hub", connecting the site to its community.

Garland, TX Walmart

Garland, TX Walmart, "Reimagined"

Perhaps this first analysis of the Garland site is too critical, but they've already missed out on creating a connection to an existing dense residential development to the north, as well as a DART transit center. This is a missed Transit Oriented Development opportunity by Walmart, a missed opportunity to connect its new retail center with a site that will inevitably see hundreds or thousands of commuters each day. The website even boasts that:
 "Garland is second only to the City of Dallas in Dallas County by population and has easy access to downtown Dallas via public transportation, including two Dart Blue line stations and buses." 
Now, I know there's far more that goes into being able to make connections to adjacent existing developments, but those are the types of efforts and actions that would really set a precedent for reimagined retail center development.

The same goes for the Neighborhood Market in Gresham, Oregon. A small housing development adjacent to the store is certainly a nice element, but smaller details, such as a connection to the city's Springwater Corridor Trail, are missing.

Gresham, OR Walmart

Gresham, OR Walmart "Reimagined"

While the design of their centers may be a step up from typical shopping centers, calling these "town centers" is generous at best, and largely misleading. There are internal site layout considerations that seem to be overlooked, while many of the reimagined centers fail to connect to surrounding areas, especially through the use of sidewalks or existing trails, and the design of parking lots or drive aisles. It makes sense that this would be the case, as most of Walmart's developable land is in the middle of parking lots. Building "town centers" in the middle of parking lots is hardly typical of traditional town centers. Some of this could be mitigated through some better design elements, like more intentionally designed drive aisles that mimic downtown streets, as opposed to head-in parking immediately bordering gathering spaces.

Long Beach, CA "Reimagined Walmart" - The site could be improved with intentionally designed drive aisles to mimic actual streets.

One question that I would ask is whether these sites will have applied the same sort of dark store restrictions that are seen in areas like Michigan. It's an assumption that Walmart will continue to serve as the landlord and developer of the site, but what it that changes? Will the flexibility seen in traditional towns be experienced in these "town centers"? I would assume not.

Walmart is essentially just positioning itself as a more diversified real estate developer, which is great for their business. That's a smart move. There are some elements included in their reimagined plans that are much better than is found in the typical shopping center. See them all for yourself at the Walmart Reimagined website. But, while this is a great move for Walmart in utilizing wasted property, this is certainly a let down considering the opportunities that exist to do far more with their current Supercenters and parking lots. As long as all this reimagining doesn't affect the ability to park an RV overnight in the future, we're cool.