Below you will find a very interesting, well-thought-out, contextual, and strategic point of view from Dean Saitta, Intercultural Urbanism. It is worth a weekend read.
Who Won the Walmart War at 9th and Colorado? by Dean Saitta.
As reported in The Denver Post and the The Denver Business Journal, Walmart has pulled out of the development at 9th and Colorado. Neighbors have declared victory, as captured in this statement from the Anti-Walmarteers at Do It Right at 9th:
We couldn’t be more pleased. We are proud of the role played by concerned neighbors in communicating to City Council representatives that Wal-mart was not the right way to go at 9th and Colorado. It is a real victory for ‘the little guy’. Councilwomen Susman and Robb were so responsive and helpful – we are deeply grateful. Now we can get down to working with the developer, the City and CU on a plan that works for the surrounding neighborhoods and is truly beneficial for all of East Denver.
If it’s a victory at all it’s a victory of superficiality over substance. It’s a victory of image and ideology—including thinly-veiled elitism and racism—over disciplined thought about inclusive city-building. It’s a victory of NIMBY-ism over strategic thinking that serves the greater public interest. It’s a victory of hypocrisy over sincerity. It’s a victory for a very particular demographic, not “East Denver.” It’s a victory that didn’t require a compelling urban vision or any novel planning and design ideas to achieve (many, many neighborhoods nationwide have been there and done that). It’s a victory that had the neighborhood associations being for the general plan accommodating a big box retailer before they were against it. It’s a victory based on misinformation and fear-mongering instead of a nuanced appreciation of site history and context. It’s a victory enabled by clumsy political leadership and capitulating councilpersons.
As for this being a victory for the little guy, “little guy” doesn’t exactly describe the demographic that was so visible and overbearing at the public meetings. The little guy is the person who depends upon the availability of value shopping alternatives: the more the merrier, and the closer to home the better. The little guy is the person who lacks time and transportation to attend public meetings, or time and technology to engage in Facebook chit-chat. The little guy is the person who lacks a front yard and rents rather than owns. The little guy is the person who may self-identify as part of the “element” of humanity that 9th and Colorado neighbors suggested, on Day One, was not welcome in their “community.” I’ve always wondered how many real little guys are in the network of neighborhoods that surround 9th and Colorado. I asked my councilwomen point blank for their understanding of neighborhood diversity, and I’m still waiting for an answer.
In my view what was lost here exceeds what was won. Lost was an opportunity to seriously explore inclusive place-making with a motivated and willing-to-compromise retail giant in way that could set an example for other cities while also, perhaps, taming the tiger. In a development and retail world currently filled with all sorts of risk and unpredictability, and given a site as challenging and as costly to remediate as 9th and Colorado, it might have been wise to at least consider what a national, “top quality” retail tenant—i.e., one that is financially-sound and credit-worthy—like Walmart might have contributed to the project of urban place-making.
Conceptual Rendering of Georgia Avenue Walmart, Washington DC
At least a few cities provide some examples of how Denverites might have joined with Fuqua Development and Walmart in what I’ve called “participatory design and “negotiated development.” My fellow blogger and Walmart agnostic Richard Layman describes, in some detail, the case of Washington, DC at his excellent website Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space. There, community activists and city officials applied pressure that led to a “Community Benefits Agreement” (CBA) with Walmart that, among other things, stipulated the following:
- Walmart will work with the Department of Small and Local Business Development to identify certified business enterprises — small, local, minority owned contractors — who can take on jobs during store construction.
- Walmart will create and fund a workforce development program with a focus on low-income residents, minorities, at-risk youth, and veterans.
- Walmart will open hiring centers in each ward where stores are planned, with the expectation of filling a majority of available positions with D.C. residents. It will also hold job fairs and work with the District government to identify candidates.
- Walmart will not sell guns or ammunition.
- Walmart will seek out local retailers to provide goods and services within their stores. Wal-Mart will also “attempt to provide space for a display of locally-sourced products.”
- Walmart will pay its employees competitive market salaries as compared to its D.C. competitors.
- Walmart will agree to install Capital Bikeshare stations, bus shelters and bike racks near its stores, and work with Metro to assess existing bus routes.
- Walmart will form community advisory committees, comprised of residents, businesses and nonprofits within 1,000 feet of each store, and meet with them quarterly.
- Walmart will make $21 million in charitable contributions over the next seven years to fund hunger relief, health and wellness, education, and other programs.
For Richard’s summary and analysis of the Washington DC case see here, and for the full report that he co-authored as part of a citizen review committee see here. It’s important to note that it’s the process that’s important in the Washington DC case, not the specific product. It’s also important to note that the Washington DC Community Benefits Agreement is non-binding and “contingent upon business conditions.” This of course raises questions about Walmart’s sincerity, especially since the company isn’t getting a tax subsidy for development. However, at this point in time there’s no indication that the company won’t make good on its promises. Mike DeBonis summarizes the significance of the agreement:
All in all, this is not a deal that will quiet Wal-Mart’s most ardent foes. But it does represent on-paper promises from a major employer that is facing fairly minimal political and regulatory hurdles and has been famously reticent to make explicit community promises in the past.
It seems that if Denver had taken some time to explore this pathway we might have been in a very good position to make a binding agreement with Walmart given that Fuqua Development was going after tax subsidies for the project. Walmart was already prepared to make binding agreements regarding the selling of exclusively 3.2 beer and the non-selling of guns and ammo. Here’s a list of some other things, inspired by DC’s citizen review document, that Denver might have negotiated:
- A building with separate entrances for each department as way to punctuate the facade and soften its “big box” character.
- A Denver B-cycle station, which the area currently lacks.
- A commitment to share underground store parking with other retailers, thereby economizing on surface space.
- Funding for traffic calming measures in adjacent neighborhoods.
- Provision of delivery services to minimize automobile traffic into and out of the site and extend the company’s commitment to sustainability.
- Supply contracts with small local farmers.
- Philanthropic support for construction of on-site affordable housing.
Other ideas are here. I’m not sure that there’s another retailer in the world as well-positioned as Walmart to modify its business model and deepen its commitment to community in a way that would create a win-win for both the company and the city. But citizen animus toward Walmart carried the day at 9th and Colorado. The company says it will explore other options in Denver. If it does, citizens in those communities might take note of Richard Layman’s perceptive note about where Walmart animus can take you:
…[citizen animus] makes it very easy ….to create noise that ends up constraining “the discourse” on issues that people can address, such as whether or not the building is designed right, [whether] it’s part of a mixed use project, and [whether there’s] a mitigation program to deal with the negative impact of Walmart store entry on independent businesses and business districts.
Indeed, citizen animus about Walmart is likely as big a factor as any in explaining why its supercenters are such a horrible visual blight on the American landscape.
Denver’s Mayor Hancock with City Council Members
Richard Layman also offers this bit of advice about the role that elected officials should play in processes of participatory design and negotiated development:
…it’s a dereliction of the responsibilities of elected officials to act solely as cheerleaders and not as “organizers” focused on achieving the best possible outcome to the city and its constituent neighborhoods.
I believe that Denver’s elected officials failed us in this regard. The Mayor was certainly a cheerleader for the project at 9th and Colorado, and by now has hopefully learned that this wasn’t the best approach. Regrettably, Denver city councilors also showed zero resolve in “organizing” for the best possible outcome. Perhaps our leaders will discover some resolve if Walmart comes knocking in other Denver neighborhoods.
As for the future of 9th and Colorado, the folks at Do It Right At 9th have posted to their Facebook page a TED talk by James Kunstler that’s intended to jump-start a conversation about place-making at the site. Kunstler is passionate in arguing that we need to create “places that are worth caring about.” Surely the 9th and Colorado neighbors will agree. But they might also understand that in order to accomplish long-term sustainability of place they’ll need to internalize some of Kunstler’s other messages. Like the one about how, starting now, “we’re going to have to do everything very differently.” This includes changing the way that we live (e.g., we’re going to have to downscale, re-scale, re-size, and contract), and changing the way that we think (e.g., we had better get over the “neighborhood exceptionalism” that informed a huge number of the anti-Walmart contributions to the 9th and Colorado debate). Neighborhoods like those around 9th and Colorado are both in, and of, the greater city.
Kunstler has noted elsewhere that the age of the suburban supercenter is over. Walmart seems to realize this, and that’s why the company is eager to break into urban markets. This fact makes it a company ripe for “collective bargaining” by other means. Because of citizen animus and political pandering we’ll never know what Walmart might have been prepared to offer as a community benefits package and a set of place-making initiatives at 9th and Colorado. It might have been very good stuff. In fact, neighbors could end up ruing the day that Walmart walked away if they end up with a completed project that’s been done on the cheap because a lesser tenant (or tenants) stepped up. Whatever happens from here, it will make for very interesting observation and analysis.
Denver’s mile-long 16th Street Mall celebrated its 30th birthday this week. The Mall is Denver’s #1 tourist attraction, generating almost 50,000 free shuttle rides per day and millions of dollars in revenue for the city. Guest speakers at the party on Tuesday included Mayor Michael Hancock, United States Senator Mark Udall, and the President of the Downtown Denver Partnership, Tami Door. These folks couldn’t use the word “iconic” too many times in describing The Mall’s current civic status.
Crowd at the 16th Street Mall’s Birthday Party, Skyline Park (D. Saitta)
Westword has a long cover story containing several complimentary vignettes from veteran Mall watchers and neighbors about how The Mall has withstood the test of time and continues to evolve. The Denver Post coverage of the birthday party was more muted, although it contained news that the Denver Downtown Partnership will birthday gift $350,000 toward lighting The Mall’s historic buildings in an “architectural and historic manner.”
“Cupcake Toast” to the 16th Street Mall: Visible left to right Tami Door, Mark Udall, Michael Hancock (D. Saitta)
Interestingly, The New York Times marked The Mall’s 30th birthday with a much longer story by Jack Healy that recalled the days when Eastern Establishment tastemakers would never miss an opportunity to disparage the “great city” ambitions of towns located in fly-over country:
For all its vitality and new development downtown, Denver is still a city in search of an icon. It has no Golden Gate Bridge, no French Quarter, no Empire State Building. The snow-capped Rockies float like a mirage off to the west, far beyond the city limits. What Denver has, instead, is the mall.
Healy goes on to point out the “mixed relationship” that Denver has with its downtown. He references a column published in The Post back in March of this year, in which resident Jimmy Hayde noted the difference between The Mall of 20 years ago and today:
Back then, you aspired to be the welcoming heart of Denver, a destination for tourists and the center of a revitalized downtown. Instead, living with you these past 20 years has revealed the painful truth that you don’t care about those relationships anymore. Instead, you nurture your new friends: petition-hawkers, sign-spinners, leaflet-distributors, drunkards, buskers, beggars, the homeless and the marauding gang-bangers who prey on your admirers.
All I can say, James, is that if you really moved to City Park to get away from “buskers, beggars, the homeless and the marauding g-b’s who prey on your admirers,” you’re in for one heck of a surprise.
So true. Still, The Mall has its issues. In singing The Mall’s praises the birthday bash’s master of ceremonies reminded the crowd of Jane Jacobs’ belief that downtown is for people, noting that the 16th Street Mall helps make it so in Denver. But Jacobs was also keen on the virtues of using a variety of networked streets to create urban vitality, as opposed to a single, long, wide one. A commentator in Westword channels Jacobs in making this case for improvement:
Rather than concentrating everything on one single street, a better urban design would expand outward, taking advantage of 14th to 18th streets by replacing the shuttle buses with a trolley system using 15th as the westbound corridor and looping over to 17th for eastbound.
That’s a design idea worth considering as a way to enliven an even greater portion of downtown. But perhaps the most important fact that emerges from the back-and-forth about the 16th Street Mall on the occasion of its 30th birthday is captured by Healy’s observation that “…a civic space built to draw all kinds of people will draw, well, all kinds of people.” We inhabit a city. Diversity goes with the territory. Vive la différence.
Last Saturday Denver Mayor Michael Hancock held his third and final 2012 Cabinet in the Community event at the Montclair Recreation Center in East Denver. It featured presentations about the 2013 city budget by Chief Financial Officer Cary Kennedy, an update about the city’s economic plan by Economic Development Director Paul Washington, and a talk about the city’s health initiative by Environmental Health Director Doug Linkhart. It also promised an eruption of organized opposition to the proposed Walmart store at 9th and Colorado, an unfolding urban infill drama that we’ve been following on this blog (more on that below).
Mayor Hancock, at Podium and with Cabinet, Addressing the Community Assembly (D. Saitta)
This was a very nice meeting—generously provisioned, well-organized, informative, and efficiently run. It addressed several of the concerns of this blog. “Aerotropolis” was one of them. Mr. Washington mentioned that we’ve “only scratched the surface” of the economic potential of Denver International Airport (DIA), the 5th busiest in the nation and 10th busiest in the world. The city is actively looking for development opportunities to maximize this potential. Mr. Washington described the proposed DIA aerotropolis as “the most profound economic opportunity that we will see in a lifetime.” It also could have long-term unintended consequences that might be worth contemplating.
Mr. Linkhart addressed the relationship between built environment and health. Denver routinely ranks as one of the nation’s fittest cities. It also ranks 6th in the country in terms of the number of people who bicycle to work, a ranking that has been helped by the success of the Denver B-cycle program. However, one-half of the city’s adults and one-third of its children are overweight or at risk thereof. In other words, Denver is getting fat along with the rest of the country. Mr. Linkhart noted that Seattle does twice as well as Denver in numbers of people who bicycle to work, and Germany as a nation (with Berlin presumably leading the way) does five times as well. Mr. Linkhart is interested in hearing from citizens about what we can do with the built environment to help improve Denver’s numbers. He mentioned creating more bike lanes. Another thing that could be done is to build more pedways and bikeways over dangerous streets, like we’ve suggested here as a way to improve urban connectivity for the development project at 9th and Colorado. But facilitating bicycle travel is one thing; equitably distributing the resources that encourage bicycle use is another. In an interesting coincidence, last Sunday’s Denver Post reported on some issues around the locating of Denver B-Cycle bike stations in the city. They’re almost exclusively in white, middle-income areas. The story also identified some of the cultural factors that affect a minority community’s willingness to participate in the program. The piece raises the interesting question of what other incentives can be used to promote biking (and walking) by Denver residents if simply making bikes available makes no difference in some neighborhoods.
This Cabinet in the Community event was also billed as one where opponents of the proposed Walmart store at 9th and Colorado could exert additional pressure to block public financing for this controversial project. We’ve dubbed the opponents Redshirts. They’ve been called “Walmartyrs”by Westword’s Patricia Calhoun, although I’m not sure what these folks are risking by opting for obstructionism over constructive engagement. I’ll assume that Ms. Calhoun is defining martyr as “someone who displays or exaggerates their discomfort or distress in order to obtain sympathy or admiration [New Oxford American Dictionary].” On the other hand, the folks working at Heidi’s Deli across the street from the development site risk losing some business for their pro-Walmart opinions (see the 9News story here) given some of the comments posted to the anti-Walmart Facebook page Do It Right at 9th. Tellingly, deli-seekers in the area are urged by Do It Righters to patronize Marczyk’s Fine Foods instead. Nope, no elitism and hypocrisy to be found anywhere in this debate…
Mayor Hancock saw this kind of outrage (and, perhaps, pettiness) coming and fired a preemptive strike in his welcoming remarks. He noted that 9th and Colorado is critical to the economic development of the city. He said that he’s heard the community (or, alternatively, perhaps just a segment of the community?) “loud and clear.” He said he wants a development that’s wanted by the neighbors and in which everyone can take pride. He reminded the group that city government takes no position on retailers and doesn’t look to favor one over another. He noted that Walmarts are being planned all over the city. Some neighborhoods want one, others don’t.
Redshirted Anti-Walmarteers at Cabinet in the Community (D. Saitta)