The City of Eden Prairie, Minnesota claims to be a “great place to work and raise a family…and is currently one of MONEY Magazine’s “Best Places to Live” in America.” This community of roughly 60,000 people lies southwest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The city happens to be the corporate headquarters for grocery distributor Super Valu, a Wal-Mart competitor. “Eden Prairie is truly a great place to Live, Work and Dream!” the community says. One of the “dreams” in Eden Prairie is an extreme makeover of a “town center,” an area north of the Eden Prairie Mall. The city has been planning to develop a town center that consists of small, pedestrian-oriented businesses on the 100 acre parcel, with a brand new Main Street. One of the big problems standing in the way of the town center project is Wal-Mart. The retailer owns a store right in the middle of the proposed redevelopment. A unpleasant confrontation could be brewing between the city and Wal-Mart, because the corporation has made it clear that it has no intention of moving, and according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has written a letter to Mayor Phil Young asking the city to alter its plans to “reflect accurately Wal-Mart’s plans for the future of its property,” and to “modify the plan so that it no longer shows a new road that would bi-sect the Wal-Mart site.” The city responds by saying that residents want a downtown where people actually walk to stores. The City Council says its doesn’t want to boot Wal-Mart out of town, but they have voted unanimously to proceed with the Town Center project, including the Main Street portion of the plan. In place of the Wal-Mart box, city planners want to see 4 to 6 story buildings with small retail shops on the street level, apartments on the upper floors. The town center project could include as many as 600 new housing units. But unless Wal-Mart cooperates, town center could remain just a dream. The city’s Community Development Director has suggested that Wal-Mart can stay right where it is — but it can’t expand that location into a superstore. “We are just starting to work with the new representatives at Wal-Mart to get a better sense of how interested they may be in redevelopment,” the City’s Development Director told the Star Tribune. “At this point they have indicated that they are interested in working with us.” The city has suggested that Wal-Mart could tear down their current store, convert it into a two story structure, and then sell off some of their excess land for development. “We believe it is possible to do a two-story Wal-Mart and still have the parking and still have room for additional development,” city officials said. For now, Wal-Mart appears to be willing to talk — but they want their superstore too. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Star Tribune, “We are going to work with the city in any way possible to help them achieve what they want to achieve. We would like to bring our customers in Eden Prairie the convenience of a super center.” In addition to the potential Wal-Mart obstacle, the city also has to deal with a high-tension power line that runs through Wal-Mart’s parking lot. But if anyone thinks that Wal-Mart is just going to pick up and move — they must be dreaming.
Wal-Mart is just one of several big obstacles to this project, and the city is not likely to pressure Wal-Mart publicly to get out. As one city official put it, “We want Wal-Mart in the city. We’re going to work it out.” But the fact that Eden Prairie wants to recreate a town center that has a mix of shops and a pedestrian-oriented feeling, could be a harbinger of things to come, as more communities turn away from the “supermall” concept that has made Wal-Mart wealthy. The giant retailer has been building supercenters for twenty years now — but is starting to talk about smaller superstores. Instead of building new stores, the company is emphasizing expanding its existing discount stores, and placing supercenters far enough apart that they don’t cannibalize each other’s sales — which has been a chronic problem at Wal-Mart. The city wants their town center to be “market driven” and will need to attract private capital. Wal-Mart could decide to fit into the plan, and still have a supercenter presentation — but its going to have to abandon the typical format of a single-story, windowless box. Readers are urged to email Eden’s Mayor Phil Young at [email protected], with a copy to all the members of the City Council at [email protected], with the following message: “Dear Mayor Young and Council, Your vision of a new Town Center for Eden Prairie is truly exciting and praiseworthy. I hope you can get the full cooperation of Wal-Mart in this effort. You should know that Wal-Mart has built two story buildings before, and they also have a superstore prototype that is a 99,000 s.f. superstore. Such a building would only require a 50,000 s.f. footprint. Wal-Mart could also build a Neighborhood Market as part of your Town Center, which would be closer to 40,000 s.f. Wal-Mart has publicly stated that it prefers to build smaller superstores in the years ahead, because many communities — and shoppers — want a more intimate, less sprawling experience when they shop. Smaller store are more environmentally friendly, and fit better into the scale of the built environment. I would encourage you to continue to push hard on this issue of size and format, and turn Eden’s dream center into a reality. After all, the motto of your town is “Live. Work. Dream.” What better dream than cutting these sprawling boxes down to a human size?”