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Wal-Mart prototype for Coast could go national

Can you imagine a Wal-Mart that looks more like an upscale power center or a European village rather than a big box?

One of the best ideas for businesses rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina to come out of the Governor’s Commission Mississippi Renewal Forum was a new model for Wal-Mart, said Ann Somers, president of the Institute of Architects in Mississippi. “Basically you cover up the big box with small retail,” Somers said. “You have a two-story retail development all around the Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart almost becomes the center of the block. I thought that was just a great idea. It is good for other retailers, too. It is like being in the mall. Other retailers can feed from the people coming into Wal-Mart.”

The design has the facade of the Wal-Mart covered with attractive two-story retail establishments. Wal-Mart would be on the ground level, with specialty stores and service businesses at the front. The facade could be built in the style of the community fitting, for example, the historic character of Pass Christian.

The idea is for a mixed commercial and residential Wal-Mart village that includes sidewalks to make walking safer and more enjoyable, parks or other green spaces, and affordable housing nearby by workers and for special needs residents such as the handicapped so they can safely ride in wheelchairs to shop.

Not settling urged

At the Mississippi Renewal Forum, Miami architect Andrés Duany urged the Coast not to settle for the lower designs from companies like Wal-Mart. A company like Wal-Mart might have seven levels of design from basic to upscale. Duany said the Coast should demand a model of Wal-Mart that is aesthetically pleasing

Wal-Mart is taking the proposals seriously. Representatives from Wal-Mart attended the charrette planning meetings, and some of the charrette participants have been invited to meet with Wal-Mart in January. There has been discussion of using the idea for replacement of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the beach in Pass Christian, a store gutted by Katrina.

David J. Hardy, Guild Hardy Architects, Biloxi, said discussion of a new model for Wal-Mart is getting national attention. “This will potentially create a new prototype for Wal-Mart,” Hardy said. “Everyone is so excited Wal-Mart would embrace the idea of bringing something back to small towns. As an economic engine for the area, Wal-Mart has a greater responsibility than just selling wares. They have a responsibility to give something back to the community. By embracing this New Urbanist concept, they are doing so. Just the fact they are actually talking about it and contemplating proceeding with it is exciting. If they do this, it could be the next logical evolution of Wal-Mart in terms of giving back to small towns. The best brains in the business are working on it, and hopefully it will bear fruit.”

Meeting set

Laura Hall, an urban designer and planning team head of the Governor’s Commission charrette for Pass Christian, said she and Duany participated in a phone conference call with Wal-Mart to propose the idea of a new walkable, urban Wal-Mart model. A meeting has been set at the Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., on January 16.

“Wal-Mart has saturated the market in terms of low cost goods for communities,” said Hall, who works for Fisher & Hall Urban Design, Santa Rosa, Calif. “They have done a great job at that. In a manner they are way better than the federal government getting goods out to the community. One thing they don’t do well is create a building that fits well into a neighborhood or downtown. We know they are interested in aspects of green building, but if everyone has to drive there, it negates the benefits of using green materials for their building. What we are talking about is incorporating Wal-Mart into the town, villages and cities so the store actually adds to fabric of community, as well as providing low-cost goods.”

Buildings are just sticks, brick and glass that be arranged one way or another. Hall prefers buildings and surrounding retail and residential developments be arranged so people can walk to the store. While the new proposed Wal-Mart model could be more expensive, that wouldn’t necessarily be so. By having a second or even a third story above the store, Wal-Mart could diversify and have income from residential, retail and office rentals.

Next level for company, communities

“Wal-Mart has saturated the market by purchasing low-cost property on the edge of town,” Hall said. “Now it is time to take it to the next level for them and the community. It is definitely a win-win. They can continue what they do best, and at the same time contribute more to the community.”

Hall said that the other businesses co-located with Wal-Mart wouldn’t compete, but instead would compliment what Wal-Mart offers. For example, there were a number of specialty shops, antique stores and cafes in Pass Christian that were destroyed or heavily damaged by Katrina. Those kinds of businesses found a niche by providing something different than what people could buy at Wal-Mart.

One of the things designers did for the Pass Christian charrette was create a Wal-Mart village with a complete range of housing and building types around for many blocks. Complex mix-use neighborhoods with sidewalks would allow people to leave the car at home, and just about all they need within walking distance.

Countering criticism

Ricky Mathews, president and publisher of the Sun Herald and a vice chairman of the Governor’s Commission, said Wal-Mart has an opportunity here to counter the bad publicity it has been getting from sources like the new Hollywood documentary, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.”

“They may also being feeling the sting from Andrés Duany’s criticism at the recent Mississippi Renewal Forum,” Mathews said in a Sun Herald column. “They have an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone in Pass Christian. By listening to Duany, who may actually be on to something — and I think he is — they could devise a model that would silence the critics who say that Wal-Mart is all about killing small towns.

“What if Wal-Mart were to work with New Urbanists and Duany to develop a new town center for Pass Christian that could become the catalyst for the rebuilding of the city? Instead of a “big box” store, Wal-Mart could build a series of stores that give the appearance of a small town. The shot in the arm this would give to the development of other stores and restaurants would be incredible.”

Mathews said there has to be a way for Wal-Mart to do something special in Pass Christian that not only gives Wal-Mart a chance to avoid the public relations nightmare of pulling out of Pass Christian but also creates an exciting new model for Pass Christian and for Wal-Mart.

Ocean Springs is also looking at a new model for Wal-Mart. Participants in the Ocean Springs charrette that worked on a New Urbanism vision for the Coast suggested a long-term project to feature a small urban center at Wal-Mart that would include apartments on top of Wal-Mart, additional retail and green space. The Center would across the highway to the CSX Railroad and a proposed depot for passenger transit.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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