While searching for photographs of Wal-Mart stores, I came across the Web site of one Chris Cheatwood, a 23-year-old native of Oxford, Alabama, and an assistant manager of the Wal-Mart in the neighboring town of Roanoke. “The Roanoke store is very small,” Cheatwood notes, “one of the smallest stores in the state.” But that’s about to change. A Wal-Mart Supercenter is due to open there soon.
I was looking for photos to remind myself that Wal-Mart stores are so big, so dumb, and so ugly that they appear to be remnants of the waning years of the Soviet Union. Cheatwood’s photos caught my eye because they were sentimental, almost pretty, the primal gray-and-blue facade of the big-box store partially obscured behind rows of cars, the whole scene suffused in the pinkish light of the magic hour.
“There is a lot of excitement from the locals,” Cheatwood reports in a blog that tracks the progress of the new store. “Whenever I go to lunch somewhere in town, they always ask me, ‘When is the store opening? How big is it? Do you have groceries?’” Strangely Cheatwood’s blog is perfectly in tune with the soft-sell ads Wal-Mart is running on CNN. Recently I saw one about the feel-good people of Napa, California, embracing Wal-Mart as a part of their community. I began to suspect that Cheatwood is some sort of shill, that his blog is a form of disinformation. I hope Wal-Mart isn’t that clever. I do, however, believe they’re learning.
A Wal-Mart Supercenter opens in America approximately every 1.65 days. These stores, which pair a supermarket with a typical discount warehouse, can grow as large as 220,000 square feet. Often, as is the case in Roanoke, they are built to replace an existing Wal-Mart in the same town. And according to Al Norman, the founder of a grassroots organization called Sprawl-Busters, local community groups or governments contest about a third of the new stores.
Lawrence, Kansas, is a prime example. The town’s mayor, commissioners, and planners have been waging pitched battle against Wal-Mart since the planning commission rejected a proposal for a 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter in October 2002. Lawrence is an extreme case. It’s a famously liberal college town of 80,000 in eastern Kansas that boasts the most vital downtown for miles around. Massachusetts Avenue, the main drag, offers a world-class selection of Converse high-tops, excellent bookstores, and restaurants that treat vegetables with respect. The city government has carefully crafted downtown’s role as a retail center, refusing to allow malls to be built in outlying cornfields while permitting a sort of big-box ghetto on a highway south of town. Wal-Mart already has a store in the designated big-box zone—a much ballyhooed early 1990s prototype for a “green” energy-efficient store—but, true to business plan, wants another store, a huge Supercenter.
The land in question, on the northwest side of town, was zoned for agriculture until it was rezoned a few years ago in an ill-conceived attempt to lure a Home Depot or a Lowe’s into town. But the zoning does not permit a department store on the site. “Wal-Mart claims that it’s not a department store,” argues David Schauner, a city commissioner elected specifically because he’s an outspoken opponent of big-box development. “We believe, from all relevant evidence, that they are a department store.”
Apparently this problematic zoning was somehow intended to protect downtown. A home-improvement store wouldn’t compete with the downtown shops—the thinking presumably went—but a department store would. Or else a Home Depot generates less traffic than a Wal-Mart. Or it was a miscalculation made by a previous set of city officials. Whatever the reason, the local developer—a partnership known as 6Wak Land Investments—isn’t buying. To date they have filed six separate lawsuits against Lawrence while the city has burned through more than $100,000 in legal fees trying to keep the Supercenter out.
With sales of $259 billion, one million employees nationwide, 3,551 domestic locations, and a number-one berth in the Fortune 500 for the third year in a row, Wal-Mart has replaced McDonald’s as the company Americans love to hate. Why? “Because it metastasizes the fastest,” says Norman of Sprawl-Busters. Of course, it depends on whether you look at Wal-Mart from the left or the right. The stores are either monsters, destroying everything in their path, or economic engines. They either generate poverty with low wages, or help low-income people with low prices.
I prefer to look at Wal-Mart from front and center—preferably from the outer edge of the parking lot. What I see is not just a machine that colonizes the countryside in 15- or 20-acre chunks—sprawl!—but a mass retailer of architecture. And I’m not talking Michael Graves at Target. What I mean is that while the cognoscenti prefer to focus on the occasional Richard Meier–designed apartment tower or the Zaha Hadid museum, Wal-Mart easily dominates the landscape that most Americans call home. The biggest buildings most people routinely visit are not Skidmore, Owings & Merrill skyscrapers; they’re Wal-Marts.
The real problem may be that Wal-Mart has just recently woken up to this fact. They are just now discovering the impact that a conscious design approach could bring to its unending acres of facade. Out in Bentonville, Arkansas, Wal-Mart has a director of architecture, Bill Correll, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man whose résumé includes work on the Mall of America. And though Correll has been with the company for eight years, making subtle changes like replacing vinyl tile floors with slip-resistant concrete or gradually shifting the exterior color scheme from the signature dark blue and battleship gray to a palette of earth tones, it’s really in the last year that Wal-Mart has warmed up to the power of architecture. The chain has instituted a program they call, in clunky Orwellian, “Store of the Community.”
Correll explains, “What we’re doing now differently is we’re proactively going in and trying to find people within the community who can help us understand the most appropriate way for us to design.” He will often send a team of architects to a new store location “whether there’s controversy or not” in search of “the regional flavor, the history and culture, and the local architectural context around our site.”
For example, Correll’s team met with a coalition of civic groups in a Fort Worth neighborhood and asked them about their favorite buildings in the area and the characteristics “they would like to see reflected” in the future store. A number of people cited a 1930shigh school as a favorite. “So,” Correll says, “we took many of the elements—including some arched windows, clay tile roofs, brick, and other material—and put these colors and materials together as part of the design of the Wal-Mart Supercenter. Does this defuse public opposition? I’m sure it does. But the real drive for us is to be good neighbors.”
Wal-Mart has picked up on a trick that developers and architects have used for years; you make cosmetic changes to a controversial building and the public will somehow believe that you’ve changed—or they’ve changed—what the building is. And sometimes it works. The annals of Wal-Mart vs. Anytown USA are now peppered with company representatives holding out the promise of “interesting architectural features.” They’ve tried that strategy in Lawrence, proposing a redbrick facade and a garden center detailed with brick pillars and fake wrought iron. But so far the Store of the Community isn’t flying there. As Kirk McClure, a University of Kansas associate professor in urban planning, observes, “A facade on a big box is a facade on a big box.”
According to the Lawrence Journal-World, the city commission voted in March to rezone the property in question so nothing larger than 80,000 square feet could be built, eliminating all but the diminutive Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets (essentially supermarkets) that top out at 55,000 square feet. 6Wak partner Bill Newsome promised a seventh lawsuit within 30 days. By the time they resolve this—if they resolve this—they’ll be able to put up a blue-and-gray store and call it Wal-Mart Classic.