Planning commissions have an eye for details. By focusing on project details, commissioners often identify traffic problems, eye sores, and hidden dangers that need to be eliminated before a project can proceed. But the devil isn’t always in the details.
When reviewing big-box development proposals, many communities have stopped asking basic design and planning questions and started to accept unnecessary impacts associated with urban sprawl.
For example, Wal-Mart and other big-box developments have a tendency to vacate existing sites in favor of new locations in rural areas. The standard excuse for this type of big-box sprawl is the need for increased square footage. Bigger stores need bigger lots, and Wal-Mart has no choice but to push Wisconsin cities farther into the country-side, right?
Well, no. Wal-Mart moves to undeveloped areas because it insists on using an outdated, inefficient store model instead of newer retail designs used in other cities across the nation.
In Wisconsin communities like Monroe and Stoughton, Wal-Mart has the capability to expand existing big-box stores with far less impact on community and its surrounding environment. Using the existing footprint, the expanded Wal-Mart should include:
Underground parking. Wal-Mart can and does build its Supercenters with underground parking. For example, in Monona, Wal-Mart is currently building a 203,000 square foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on the 14-acre site of a vacant KMart. Why isn’t Wal-Mart using its current stores in Monroe or Stoughton in the same
Low impact development. Green roofs, parking lot gardens and porous pavement are a few of the design features that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is promoting to limit the amount of polluted run-off created by big-box development. Given the clear environmental and economic benefits (i.e. lower long-term energy costs), big-box retailers like IKEA have been integrating these design features in to their developments for years. However, instead of using low impact development techniques, Wal-Mart has been offering concrete storm detention ponds and paving over even more land in the process.
Multi-level design. Retail stores can and should be built with more than one floor. As of 2006, Wal-Mart operated at least 20 multi-level stores, many of them in buildings vacated by other retailers. Why isn’t Wal-Mart adding a second floor to their existing stores in Monroe and Stoughton, doubling the square footage? In the past, multi-story retail buildings and parking structures defined downtown commercial areas. Concerned about the impacts of sprawl, many communities are attempting to return to the multi-level retail design to promote sustainable development. Yet, despite better designs, sprawling parking lots and single-story supercenters continue to rapidly replace Wisconsin farms, paving over land at a rate three-times faster than our population growth.
The days of accepting Wal-Mart’s worst should be gone by now. Before we get to the details of a big-box development proposal, Planning commissions should address basic concerns with the single-story design and expansive parking lots. Wisconsin communities deserve the most efficient design that Wal-Mart offers, regardless of opportunities to cut costs by taking over farms.
At your next planning commission meeting, make sure your commissioners are demanding the best that big-box retailers have to offer and taking your community to the next level.
Brent Denzin is an Equal Justice Works Fellow and an attorney at Midwest Environmental Advocates Inc., which recently moved its home office to Milwaukee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.