Wal-Mart as savior of east side? Get real

New store may perk up faded strip. But big box is no solution.

08/31/2009 12:00 AM

08/31/2009 6:38 AM

Dilworth revitalized in the 1980s – without a Wal-Mart. NoDa area revitalized in the 1990s – without a Wal-Mart. Uptown Charlotte revitalized in the past 15 years – without a Wal-Mart. So did South End and Plaza-Midwood.

Yet the recent sale of property along Independence Boulevard for a new super-Wal-Mart was greeted in some quarters as though it assures all kinds of wonderful things will happen for East Charlotte. Say what?

Obviously, that stretch of Independence Boulevard has been in sad decline for years, in part because the state took so long to complete a widening project that it made a glacier look speedy. The sight of a new store from a powerhouse retail company replacing an empty Amity Gardens shopping center may well inspire other retail businesses to move in or redevelop. And we don't begrudge the folks in that part of town the pleasure of shopping at a clean new Wal-Mart instead of the older one at Eastway Crossing shopping center.

But get real. A Wal-Mart is not a required tool for revitalization. The new Wal-Mart isn't even an additional store in East Charlotte, it's just moving from a smaller, older store about a mile away.

Since Wal-Mart's lease on the Eastway property expires in 2011, the same year it plans to open its new store, a letter Wal-Mart signed in 2006 agreeing to keep the Eastway site clean and to market it to new tenants will no longer apply. What will happen to that empty husk of a building? Vacant big-box stores have been a blight on East Charlotte for years. Adding another is not a cheerful prospect.

Further, Independence Boulevard is a planned transit corridor, and the new Wal-Mart is in what's expected to be a transit station area. No matter how you fancy up a brick façade or require trees and landscaping, a big-box Wal-Mart – a very large one-story, single-use building with a vast surface parking lot – is not transit-friendly or pedestrian-friendly development.

Modern American consumer society loves Wal-Mart and similar stores, and we're not suggesting they be outlawed. Nor are we saying that this new Wal-Mart won't help temporarily perk up a section of Independence.

But we are suggesting that to think this Wal-Mart will fit in well with a transit corridor the city envisions developing in 10 or 15 years is fantasy.

One huge problem for East Charlotte has been the decline of Eastland Mall (developed in the 1970s, we note, by Henry Faison, who partnered with Wal-Mart on its new store). Does building a larger, possibly competing Wal-Mart a little more than a mile away help or hurt Eastland's redevelopment? That's tough to predict, and maybe it won't hurt. But it's a question more people should have been asking during the 2006 rezoning discussions.

The sad reality is that Independence is an ugly, traffic-gnarled highway lined with miles of 20th-century auto-centric sprawl, much of it now aging. Reconfiguring any part of it into development that will support fixed-route transit, whether light rail or busways, will be a huge challenge.

East Charlotte residents and politicians should be pushing for urban-style, transit-friendly development for that part of town – not a big-box store – no matter how pretty its façade.

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