Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sam's Club, East Village, and De-Coupling the Showroom from Storeroom

You've no doubt heard of the kerfuffle regarding the proposed Sam's Club going into the "East Village" area east of, ahem, West Village and US75.  First, never trust a rendering or believe you will get what is shown in a rendering.  Renderings are more often than not eye-wash and can be used to deceive.  That alone points to the deeper issue of Dallas zoning being the wild west.  Again, never make fun of Houston's lack of zoning if you're a Dallasite.  Our situation is worse as it combines all the byzantine and convoluted bureaucracy without any of the predictability.  The development market doesn't particularly like regulation, but what they like less is lack of predictability and arcane, time wasting negotiations with micro-management (which are the two things our current zoning and development process ensures).

Everything is a negotiation.  You have to pay attention to the smallest of details in the PDD, which is legally binding (but malleable if you go through another rezoning process) unlike renderings or conceptual plans that aren't submitted into the zoning case.  That doesn't address the issue that the neighborhood feels deceived, which may or may not be the case.  I have no idea what happened.  I do know that slipping a stipulation that within a mixed-use zoning classification an allowance for 100,000 sq ft big box is against what the site warrants or was envisioned in the comprehensive plan (which, like many planning efforts in Dallas is also a non-binding paper planning doomed to sit on a shelf).

That editorial aside, what I really want to mention is a compromise.  I don't think anybody is particularly against Sam's as a business, but they are against the suburban (and frankly 20th century) nature of the development prototype.  There ought to be legitimate concerns about what happens to the box if/when it goes dark.  There are no stipulations forecasting what to do with a potentially empty box in the future, which if you're going to allow an inappropriate us there better be something to address the long-term utilization of the site.

Back to the business model of Sam's.  It clearly will make money for both the developer and the business.  It may very well be destructive to the surrounding neighborhood, which is what they're concerned about.  There is also concern about what it will do to the traffic in the area and the intersections and frontage roads along 75 which are already stressed.  You may have noticed, but Sam's is an entirely car-based business.  And maybe therein lies the opportunity.  We can intensify the development and density by rethinking Sam's model for a walkable urban prototype, that frankly, they will need as more people move inward in all cities, but may not all have SUVs to transport the 4000 rolls of toilet paper and the 72 inch screen TV they're picking up.

The thing about big boxes is that they combine display with warehouse under one very big roof and footprint, which is low intensity development on very expensive land, which is rather inefficient all around.  What if instead, we could de-couple the showroom from the warehouse.  Instead of driving up in your pickup truck that you (and definitely I) don't have, what if the Sam's Showroom was part of a mixed-use, walkable district like West Village, but instead of 200,000 square feet or whatever it is, it's a 25k space but there is no warehouse.  Instead, you peruse what they have, almost as if shopping online but with some things you can touch and feel, you get the window shopping experience, other categories might be on ipads to flip through.  Then, instead of loading up the moving truck you have to rent, you have a digital shopping cart of things you pick and choose.

After checking out, which you would also do digitally, the warehouse, which can be sited on appropriately cheap land in need of employment in South Dallas, would assemble your order and deliver it to your home that day.  Re-thinking the entire warehouse shopping model would allow the site to develop in a more neighborhood/context appropriate manner, would generate more revenue for the developer, more tax base for the city, and would give Sam's a new prototype for how they might locate in any major city in the world (think of the market penetration).

If they don't want to derive a new urban model, then maybe they don't belong in cities and ought to be fought for their prototype.