If It Had Happened, Part 5: South Hill Walmart

Walmart's south Spokane store would have been built up to the street and would have featured rooftop parking. Please excuse the potato-esque quality of this image. (PHOTO: Spokesman-Review)

Walmart’s south Spokane store would have been built up to the street and would have featured rooftop parking. Please excuse the potato-esque quality of this image. (PHOTO: Spokesman-Review)

Today we delve into the politics and concerns of a local neighborhood as we revisit perhaps the single most controversial development project in the history of the South Hill. In 2006, big-box retailer Walmart proposed building a massive 186,000 square foot multi-story store at 44th and Regal at Spokane’s outer edge. It was a large project considering the similar developments that had taken place nearby in recent years (Shopko and Albertson’s come to mind) but fascinatingly, the store would have been a first for even Walmart. It would have been smartly-designed to serve what the conglomerate called the neighborhood’s more “upscale” clientele, incorporating design features that few Walmart stores incorporate: windows, streetfront retail, structured and rooftop parking, and the simple addition of building it up to the street.

Understandably, the proposal attracted massive opposition driven by concerns about traffic, crime, property values, and the wholesale effect of adding a mega-store to one of Spokane’s least-developed neighborhoods. 600 people showed up to a traffic planning meeting at the Ferris High School auditorium, where a vocal majority were opposed to the proposal and many chose to direct their anger at representatives seated on-stage. Of course, there was no resolution until the next year, when officials announced that Walmart had abandoned the project, ostensibly due to “interference” from the nearby radio towers on its computer and radio equipment.

But why was the opposition so sharp? Why could Walmart not build, when Target now has a store under construction not far from the 44th and Regal site–especially when the Target being developed is a “prototype,” no-frills store that is not built to the street, features no design and architectural embellishments, and features a 700-vehicle surface lot devoted to the temporary storage of cars?

The answer lies in two dichotomous effects which I will call the Walmart Effect and the Target Effect.

The Walmart Effect refers to a neighborhood’s and an individual’s tendency to oppose Walmart at all costs. Part of this arises from Walmart’s labor practices. The company is well-known for refusing to provide healthcare coverage for its employees and for cutting employees to part-time in order to wiggle its way out of providing healthcare for them. Part of this arises from the well-documented effect that Walmart has on local communities. Walmart, as the poster-child for big-box development, increases crime, decreases neighborhood vitality, decreases property values, increases blight, and overall harms the communities in which it locates.

But here’s the thing: In general, all big-box retailers cause increase crime, decrease neighborhood vitality, decrease property values, increase blight, and harm the communities in which they locate. It’s not limited to Walmart. Walmart simply receives the brunt of the blame because it is the poster-child for big-box development.

Which brings us to the Target Effect. This counter-effect arises as a direct result of disdain for Walmart. People like Target because they think it provide a more upscale product than Walmart (it doesn’t), because it benefits communities (it doesn’t), because it is more willing to provide architectural and design changes (it isn’t), and because it provides better compensation and healthcare to its employees (it doesn’t). Target is no better than Walmart, but receives less opposition simply because it isn’t Walmart.

As such, the South Hill is poised to gain a true big-box store in Target when Walmart, by contrast, was more than willing to work with the neighborhood on a more civically-minded, urban-designed store. This would have set a crucial precedent for other stores interested in locating in the area. Work with the neighborhood or fail. Period.

Paradoxical (and theoretical) Conclusion: If the proposed-in-2006 Walmart had been built, then South Regal and the Southgate District might just look today more like Kendall Yards than Northpointe. Or at least, its development plan might look more like Kendall Yards than Northpointe, or perhaps an amalgamation of the two. Really. If it had been built, developers would be less able to compromise with the neighborhood. The Target site would have been developed in a more urban-designed fashion with buildings up to the street and structured or underground parking. Housing might have even been in the mix. And we just might have seen a neighborhood designed not just for profit, but with at least one foot in the figurative door of new urbanism. Shame it couldn’t have happened differently.

Do you agree? Do you think that the more carefully-designed Walmart store could have served as a model for other retailers locating in the Southgate District? What about the Target Effect and the Walmart Effect? Are they fair descriptions? Share your thoughts on this story by commenting, tweeting, posting, and hashtagging away!

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2 thoughts on “If It Had Happened, Part 5: South Hill Walmart

  1. I love this post. I had no idea a target was going up there until a few days ago, but when i heard i thought many of the same things. But i think there is something else at work here as well as the Wal-Mart effect. There is also the south hill effect. I’ve worked at Wal-Mart, and also lived up near the regal site, so i have experience with the people who can be normally found in both locations. The south hill people don’t want to shop where those “other” people shop. My ex worked at a chain store on 29th, after having worked at 5 other locations in Spokane and the Seattle area, and she said the customers who came in from the south hill were the rudest people she has ever encountered in retail. I know that is not true of all south hill residents, but there is an underlying current of disrespect for those who might be perceived as “below”, like Wal-Mart shoppers or those in the retail or the service industry. I think this dynamic has played a large role in this whole thing.

    • I wouldn’t go that far. I do think that the South Hill has some NIMBYism and certainly some rude people, but on the whole, in my experience it isn’t any worse than the rest of Spokane. If you look at the demographics, it’s definitely not [the Southgate District where the Target is to be located] the richest neighborhood in Spokane; in fact, it’s probably one of the most solidly middle-class.

      That said, there definitely is a South Hill “culture” that is pervasive and oft-criticized. It’s very active, motivated, involved. One could say “hyper-involved.” Lots of soccer moms who also work two jobs and volunteer at their kids’ schools. Lots of men who work downtown and think that they have power but in reality have little. The disdain for big-box retailers, in addition to the quality of life impacts, I think, comes from the perception that there is no reason to add it when East Sprague is pretty close by already (especially when most people leave the South Hill daily) and there are plenty of places to fulfill general needs as it is. When you think about it, almost all of the South Hill–especially the area around Manito and Comstock and High Drive–is a residential neighborhood. It’s one of the few blocks of neighborhoods in Spokane that isn’t broken up by commercial uses.

      I do think that this attitude is changing. People seem amenable to working with developers to make new development happen. They want mixed use, they want complete streets, they want some retail. Much of this has come from the success of developments like the Village at Regal Pond and the revitalization of the South Perry District. I think that the neighborhood wants something like Garland or South Perry or Kendall Yards and the developers and retailers want something more like Division or Sprague. (Or at least that’s the perception from residents.) This creates an antagonism between residents and developers/retail, and it just continues on and on. Unfortunately that antagonism is sometimes taken out on retail employees. It’s Spokane’s fiercest development battleground, I’d say, but it’s not motivated by NIMBYism anymore so much as it is by a desire to define the direction of the neighborhood.

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