First, Walmart showed how unprepared communities were for handling sprawl. Now, the company is doing the same, but for infill. On February 21, the Sarasota Herald Tribune ran an article on how Walmart is moving to in-town locations for the next wave of growth. This is unfolding in Sarasota, where the retail giant has proposed a 24 hour supercenter on one of the last best parcels where the urban bone structure is intact. The sub-text is really interesting, and serves as a good case study for revealing a crisis in planning.
A global shift in the economy and the nature of work - This may not seem like news, but how this translates to community design is still daunting. Nobody describes the shift better than Michael Freedman of the California-based firm Freedman, Tung and Sasaki. Fair warning: approaching Freedman’s work is a commitment of at least 90 minutes. But he strings the narrative together in a way that not only explains, but also says “and here is what we do next.” This video is great; if you don’t’ have time, there are jump-in points at minutes 23, 45 and 1:06 (or thereabouts).
In Sarasota, the job base has always been a feast/famine affair driven by retirees and the service industry. The County is now rethinking jobs both within its strong sectors (housing, tourism) and outside the box (design and niche manufacturing). All of these require exquisite settings – natural, built and creative. The fact that the County approved only one of two enclosed malls last year and the city is mulling over a Walmart speaks to the utter disconnect on designing for the future of the work they want.
Plans, codes and skill sets are stuck in time –The hyper-growth of the 1980s, 90’s and early 00’s, coupled with the massive recession that began in 2006, have left a trail of unattended needs (I am writing this after consulting with other friends who also worked in medium sized towns):
- The Sequence - It is becoming apparent that good planning is like developing a financial portfolio with four questions (planning lingo in parentheses): What do you have (asset mapping)? What do you want (visioning)? How do you get there (comprehensive planning)? How are you doing (implementation and feedback)? Communities tend to jump immediately to the end of the process, which is the biggest gap in planning, in my opinion.
- The Scale - There are a lot of comprehensive plans and zoning codes, but not enough of the middle small area plans that link how the big picture and site level details work together. This vacuum is made worse by funding cuts. The anemic role of area planning, in my opinion, is the second biggest gap in planning, particularly for infill and sprawl repair.
- Stale Language - There are a lot of codes and plans out there splashed with 1990’s era smart growth language, but not necessarily enough to guide decisions or counteract older language that makes conventional zoning so detrimental.
- Skill Sets - A lot of skill sets out there were developed in the go-go years of master planned communities, conservation development and complete street definitions that made roads wider (ever seen new bike lanes in Florida?). Cities are facing square peg/round hole frustration as large lot practices for things like stormwater, parking and loading docks are forced onto in-town locations.
- The Punt - Sprawl has delayed hard discussions on where to redevelop. Determining the attributes of areas ripe for successful redevelopment and then communicating those results requires amazing skill.
The Crisis in Citizen Planning– This is where Walmart is getting really clever. Zoning codes tend to treat the residential interface with other development projects as a protection zone. Codes describing neighborhood retail centers are replete with words such as “less intense,” compatible, and “aesthetics.” Walmart has found an ally in outdated code language:
- Less intense – a sea of parking lot drives down the Floor Area Ratio (or FAR). Walmart can argue they are less intense than a mixed use center. Intensity has been defined so narrowly (a measure of density for retail) that 24 hour operations, auto orientation and lack of connections don’t register.
- Compatible – Walmart looks for neighbors who support the store, because once one household declares they can live next to a Walmart – the word compatible is drained of meaning.
- Aesthetics – In Sarasota, Walmart is promising to paint the store beige. Aesthetics has morphed into comparative aesthetics (it could be worse) instead of a measure of livability.
In Sarasota, an overarching plan for the neighborhood was rejected after a nasty fight over condos. Foregoing a plan was seen as a protective move, though it only made the neighborhood more vulnerable because intent and aspirations have now been left open to interpretation by Walmart’s lawyers. Citizen planning, like a lot of environmental planning, is stuck in a bygone, just-say-no era. Roger Lewis wrote a timely article on zoning which is a great complement to what is happening in Sarasota.
In summary, the planning crisis is a play in (at least) three parts
- Funding for area plans linking multiple landowners, as well as public and private realms.
- Sequence and scale of planning and updates
- Citizen planning for a future by design.
Walmart tends to be the subject of a lot of exposé. In a twist, Walmart has imposed an exposé on us: communities are unprepared to carry out better infill as part of a community portfolio.