The West End Walmart is already feeling like a foregone conclusion despite its upcoming variance hearing at the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BOZA) on March 2. That board, chaired by the only outspoken critic on the Louisville Metro Planning Commission, David Proffitt, could decline the mega-corporation’s request to upend Louisville’s long-established land development codes, or it could cave, just like the planning commission, over empty threats to walk away from a ridiculously subsidized deal—some $4.2 million in direct and indirect contributions for a $25 million project.
Ahead of that hearing, it’s worth taking a look at one example of a Walmart-anchored development that has a few direct comparisons to the 18th Street, Dixie Highway, and West Broadway site. Many have pointed to mixed-use or urban Walmarts being built in wealthy and powerful communities such as in Washington, DC, but late last year, a mixed-use building with a Walmart Neighborhood Market in its base opened in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Bronzeville is not a wealthy enclave like where DC is building Walmarts. It’s a historically African-American neighborhood that has experienced job loss and disinvestment on Chicago’s South Side.
The so-called Shops and Lofts at 47 brought 72 apartments, 55,000 square feet of retail (41,000 square feet occupied by Walmart), and 24 new flats next to the main building to the neighborhood. Among the 96 new residential units, 44 are affordable, 28 are public housing, and 24 are market-rate apartments, reported The Architect’s Newspaper. The project was developed by the non-profit Community Builders, which has experience building urban housing across the United States, according to the Chicago Gazette. Other stakeholders included LISC Chicago, Quad Communities Development Corporation, and Columbus, Ohio–based Skilken Development Company.
According to The Architect’s Newspaper:
Anchored by a Walmart Neighborhood Market, the $46 million affordable housing and retail development opened on October 14 after eight years of failed and stalled attempts to revitalize the corner of 47th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. The largely African American community of Bronzeville flourished through the 1950s, earning a reputation far beyond Chicago as a middle-class “Black Metropolis” where black culture and black-owned businesses rivaled or surpassed Harlem in New York City. Since then it has suffered job loss, disinvestment, and depopulation, despite its proximity to Lake Michigan and The Loop.
LISC Chicago wrote shortly after the opening, “The $46 million apartments-over-retail complex on the southwest corner of 47th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue shows what can be accomplished when a community gets organized, aims high… and never gives up.” Like Louisville, the Bronzeville site saw several failed redevelopment schemes, and took the development team over seven years to complete.
Walmart Neighborhood Markets are better geared towards urban neighborhoods, and, according to the Gazette, the store’s focus is “on groceries and fresh food but includes health and cleaning products, a pharmacy, and a photo processing center.” The Bronzeville store created about 100 retail jobs.
The Architect’s Newspaper continued:
The city [of Chicago] kicked in $13 million in tax increment financing for site preparation, wrangling more than $8 million in loans mainly from the Chicago Housing Authority, $663,000 in donations tax credit equity, $8.4 million in low-income housing tax credit equity, and “up to” $20 million in tax-exempt bonds. The commercial component won $3.3 million in New Markets Tax Credit equity.
Walmart’s Louisville plans call for a Supercenter that’s some three times the size of the Neighborhood Walmart concept. At 154,000 square feet in a single-use, single-story building set 400 feet from the street, the Supercenter model is fundamentally at odds with urban life. In order to remain financially viable, such stores rely on a rampant car-culture at the expense of walkability. It’s the exact opposite of a city.
While $46 million might seem steep for Louisville’s market—Bristol Development is proposing some 260 luxury apartments in the middle of Downtown’s most thriving neighborhoods for $50 million—the Chicago example shows that pursuing a place-driven development scheme with a coalition of supports is a better approach than turning over the keys entirely to Walmart and letting them run amok in the city’s core. Could a coalition in Louisville have brought in additional money from the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, other affordable housing developers, New Market Tax Credits, and by selling off excess land not required to house a sprawling Supercenter? (And could the building be built for less in Louisville in the first place?)
In Chicago, the development team and the city leveraged the density of the surrounding neighborhoods to show the economic viability of the area. According to LISC:
Traditionally, retailers seeking new locations for their shops and stores look at consultants’ reports about the median income of the area. It’s an approach that doesn’t work for low-income, high-density urban neighborhoods.
Ten years ago, ShoreBank came up with another way to measure the economic strength of an inner-city neighborhood: by looking more closely at how population density translates into community buying power.
Called MetroEdge, this market analysis approach looks at the amount of money spent by residents of a densely packed urban neighborhood. While a household’s median income might be low, taken as a whole, the neighborhood packs a solid economic punch.
West Louisville has over 60,000 residents, which combined, make up a significant buying power even though individually neighborhood incomes don’t match those in the eastern county. The Chicago example shows that revitalizing a downtrodden neighborhood and bringing in new retail—even Walmart—can bring new jobs, new housing, and new options to residents. And without the extra baggage of throwing out Land Development Codes and bad design precedents.