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Dressing Up The Big Box

Even Wal-Mart seems willing to admit that its traditional gray-blue mega-box stores are ugly. The question is, what do you do about it? Too many ...

Even Wal-Mart seems willing to admit that its traditional gray-blue mega-box stores are ugly. The question is, what do you do about it?

Too many cities are coming up with the wrong answer. Muldoon, Alaska wants Wal-Mart to build a prettier store than others nearby, pointing to this one in Evergreen, Colorado which looks like a ski chalet on steroids. Plant City, Florida wants to see more brick on its new Wal-Mart. And Montcross, North Carolina thinks its new Wal-Mart on the side of I-85 will look just dandy if it is done up with neo-Gothic detailing. Oh, woe. Will somebody please e-mail me a picture of that when it's done? (

These plans are silly not just because they reflect the vulgar sort of Vegas fakery that passes for design these days. It's because asking Wal-Mart to build porticoes or pillars or pointy roofs into its stores completely misses the point.

There are lots of good reasons to feel uncomfortable about the way Wal-Mart designs its stores. The parking lots, always the first thing you see, are so big you could land a small jet on them. The stores are usually disconnected from where people live, work, or other shopping spots, so there is no choice but to drive there. Wal-Mart picks locations on ugly, traffic-choked suburban shopping strips, where roadsides are over-zoned for retail to begin with. And when a Wal-Mart box goes vacant (as has been happening a lot lately as the company expands into even bigger stores) it is difficult to re-use the space. Vacant big boxes with chain link fences around them are to the suburbs what empty row houses and factories have long been to Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Instead of focus on these issues, which are really matters of zoning rather than design, the new local guidelines obsess over superficial things. Surely Wal-Mart prefers it this way. The company has been through enough local siting battles to know when to throw the dogs a bone. Sure, brick costs more than cinder blocks. But better to keep the spotlight there, than on questions like how much Wal-Mart pays its workers.

Rather than ask Wal-Mart to build architectural caricatures, local officials should be asking whether it's possible to make big box stores a part of, rather than apart from, the community. If Home Depot can put stores in the middle of Manhattan, then I think they can. Why couldn't a suburban Wal-Mart be clustered with (or perhaps even under) housing, offices or restaurants? They could all share a parking garage. With the proper density, you could even serve such a complex with bus or light rail service. Best of all, the big-box space would be more adaptable. If Wal-Mart has to move out, you can convert the retail space to offices or housing, rather than require an equally-large store to take its place. I'm not crazy about all these lifestyle centers cropping up lately, but they're certainly better than what we have now with Wal-Mart.

Mark Begich, the Alaska mayor, seems to believe he's playing hardball with Wal-Mart. "The Wal-Mart corporation is like a vacuum cleaner," he told the Anchorage Daily News. "They suck out of a community and leave it. We're going to have a different discussion."

Tell me, Mr. Mayor: how will a timber roof line change that?

Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.
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