Community groups often complain that Wal-Mart’s single-floor, windowless box is the worst form of retail sprawl, and that the retailer could do a better job at learning ‘low-impact design’ techniques for its stores. One of those low-impact options is to build a more compact floor plan, by putting its stores on multiple levels. This reduces the size of its footprint, reduces impervious space, and allows more open space. Wal-Mart rarely opens multi-level stores, but tends to boast about it when it does. Here are excerpts from the company’s press release this week from Richmond, California, where the retailer went up, not out: “This morning (April 11th), Wal-Mart will open the doors to a unique, three-level store inside a formerly vacant space at Richmond California’s Hilltop Mall…In order to blend in with the layout of the mall and neighboring department stores, designers reconfigured the store format to accommodate the mall’s multi-floor plan. Wal-Mart took over space formerly occupied by another large retailer and completely remodeled and retrofitted the interior. Unlike the layout of most Wal-Mart stores, the Richmond store is built within three floors of mall space, with the first two offering merchandise for customers. The third floor houses the store’s storage and receiving areas. Multiple entrances into the store offer shoppers access to parking areas from both the first and second floors and also interior access into the mall from the first floor. More than 28 cash registers are dispersed throughout the 205,700 square-foot store to provide greater convenience to customers. Escalators are designed to allow for the safe transport of customers and shopping carts between floors. Wal-Mart has another multi-level store located in California in the city of Los Angeles. Shoppers will also notice an updated “look and feel” of the store’s interior, with new signage to help navigate through the expanded merchandise departments along with new flooring and engaging merchandise displays. Among other renovations, the store features an “open plan” pharmacy along with wider aisles and more open common areas.”
With its high tech reputation, architects often wondered why Wal-Mart had not heard of machines called “escalators,” which move people from one level to another. There is no reason why we can’t move Wal-Mart to the next level also. The company has proven it can build 99,000 s.f. superstores. A two-level superstore at this size would have a first floor footprint slightly larger than one acre. Instead of a 150,000 s.f. superstore, this compact, two-level version would still have enough selling space to hold two football fields, but would free up more than 2 acres of open space that could remain green and pervious, doing less damage to the local hydrology of the site, not to mention the aesthetics and view of the surrounding land. Low-impact design is not something that can only happen in tight, urban areas — but should be incorporated into every Wal-Mart project — urban, suburban, or rural. Wise use of space prevents sprawl, and adverse impacts to the environment. It’s time for Wal-Mart to rise to the next level.