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Miss. Wal-Marts may apply 'new urbanism' in rebuilding
Wal-Mart, the big-box giant sometimes accused of contributing to sprawl, traffic jams and the demise of downtown merchants, is considering an urban look and downtown locations for two of its Gulf Coast stores destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Urban planners invited by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to bring fresh rebuilding ideas to 11 hurricane-damaged communities have devised concepts that would turn Wal-Mart's big-box stores into corner stores.

Many of the architects and planners from across the USA and other countries who are advising Mississippi's rebuilding team embrace "new urbanism," which calls for a return to old-fashioned town design that encourages people to walk from home to stores. They say executives from the world's largest retailer want to meet with them in January at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Among the proposals:

Wal-Mart Village. Apartments, condominiums and town houses would surround the giant store. Streets and sidewalks would allow easy access on foot. Parking would be hidden behind the building rather than forming a sea of concrete in front.

"It humanizes big-box retail," says Ben Pentreath, a British architectural designer with the Prince of Wales Foundation for the Built Environment. Pentreath was part of a team developing a plan for rebuilding Pass Christian, Miss., where a Super Wal-Mart was destroyed. "If it's really successful, it cuts down on car traffic," he says. A similar concept is being discussed in Ocean Springs, Miss., site of another Wal-Mart.

Downtown Wal-Mart. The store would have an urban street-front fa�ade rather than a strip-mall front. It would anchor a downtown shopping district that would include smaller retailers.

"We got a very positive reception (from Wal-Mart)," says Laura Hall of Fisher & Hall Urban Design in Santa Rosa, Calif., who headed the rebuilding team in Pass Christian.

Wal-Mart is considering the options, but "we haven't made any commitments to these specific designs," says Glen Wilkins, community affairs manager for Wal-Mart's Southeast region. "We definitely want to keep our options open."

The company is experimenting with more urban designs in denser parts of Atlanta where space is at a premium, Wilkins says, including underground parking garages. "It's not your typical Wal-Mart," he says.

Adopting a new urbanist vision would be a departure for Wal-Mart.

"Wal-Mart is able to do a lot of things better than anybody on the planet," Hall says. "But what they're not good at is building beautiful buildings that fit into the rest of the town. ... They've contributed to the dislocation, the disconnection of urban form in towns because they're such a huge building and a huge parking lot."

Some communities have resisted Wal-Mart stores over concerns about the stores' impact on sprawl and locally owned businesses. The company has been criticized in recent months over issues such as pay and health care benefits for its workers. A documentary attacking its business practices, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, is playing in theaters in many cities. Wal-Mart has released its own, more positive film: Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Makes Some People C-r-a-z-y.

After one supermarket went bankrupt, Wal-Mart was the only food store in Pass Christian, pop. 6,758. "We didn't have shoe stores, clothing stores," says Malcolm Jones, chief administrative assistant to the mayor.

The idea of a Wal-Mart Village on the edge of town may appeal more to local residents than a downtown store, he says, because it won't disrupt the town's historic district.

Another plus: Creating housing is a key to Pass Christian's comeback. The city lost 75% of its 3,600 homes. The proposed residences around Wal-Mart would replace at least a quarter of those units, Jones says. "We're in such financial straits that we have to try to figure out the best way to replace our tax base and protect the charm of our community," he says.

 
 
 
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