Housing Complex

Ask Wegmans to Come, But On D.C.’s Terms

Where the Wegmans are.

Here's an easy way to get web traffic: Find some "news" about Wegmans locating in the District, even if it's just an assurance that the city and the grocer may still be talking to each other, a year after they started. It's the great white whale of food purveyors, forever lurking in the suburbs, and in the dreams of carless urbanites.

How realistic are those aspirations? Ward 7 residents recently put together a petition begging Wegmans to come their way, and most of their arguments boil down to how much the store would benefit residents—but businesses make decisions on what would benefit them, not inner city neighborhoods. The fact that Wegmans would provide better nutritional options and jobs for idle youth is not a compelling case for them to come to your neighborhood.

The District's fundamentals, though, are pretty impressive, at least in terms of Wegmans' site criteria. According a top commercial broker, they need at least 90,000 square feet, and 75,000 people with median household incomes of at least $75,000 within the "trade area," which is the area within which people will travel to get to the store. Walter Reed in Ward 4 would certainly fit the bill, as would the spot at Fort Lincoln that Target gave up (the ready-to-go sites in Ward 7, Capitol Gateway and Skyland, have already been taken by Walmart). 

But that's not the whole story. Looking at the sites that Wegmans has already and is planning in the D.C. area, they're all located a few minutes from a major highway. And they all have massive, massive parking lots.

For that reason, Ward 4-based planner Richard Layman, who's already been frustrated with the inability of D.C.'s zoning regulations to force better urban designs out of Walmart, thinks D.C. should give Wegmans a pass: A densifying city just can't afford that kind of bad land use. "D.C. should know what it stands for," he writes.

The fact that Wegmans is even talking about locating at Walter Reed, however, indicates that they're willing to break from past practice: Georgia Avenue is no Capital Beltway, after all. Speeding up streetcar planning would help offset the lack of easy highway access, and it already has a 1,200 parking garage. And here, the District has unique leverage over any potential retailer:  The city controls the site and is currently in the process of zoning it, which means they could require a grocery store to accommodate housing or other uses.

Wegmans builds the way it has over the years because nobody's asked it to do anything different. In the suburbs, everybody's just thrilled to get their gourmet cheese bar. The District doesn't have that kind of land to burn, but it's also the most desirable urban market in the country, and it's worth Wegmans' while to make Washington their first experiment with an urban format store. If Walmart can learn mixed use, which it's at least doing in some places, then anybody can.

We can do better.

  • Skipper

    Ah, always fun reading the latest musings of the great armchair planner who bitches about every new project and always cites to his past bloggings to prove that he's thought of everything already and that no one ever listens to his brilliance.

  • St Elizabeths East

    st elizabeths east is the only place with land available that is close (1/2 mile maybe) to a highway. 295,495,695 etc. City officials state that the median income for the new Coast Guard HQ is 90k.

  • JM

    Lydia -

    On a (somewhat) related note, I'd be interested in a story on why Whole Foods seemingly refuses to look at store options east of 14th St NW. It really is baffling when you look at the amount of disposable income they are bypassing.

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  • That guy in DC

    Just want to note that half the lot in that aerial of Wegmans in Fairfax is structured parking (there's one level below)--so they can't be totally against any structured parking solution. (Although I'm all for more density and better designs for pedestrians/transit users.)

  • Corey

    Just a thought - maybe they see all the NIMBY nonsense with the Giant on Wisconsin and (correctly) think twice about building in DC.

  • Ezebel

    You know they are trying out a more "urban" format in Boston so who knows what they will come up with next. Or at least trying to come up with one. You can google it I'm sure. It really is the greatest grocery store in the country.

  • Sam

    Lydia's overall point applies to more than just Wegman's. Is the 60,000-80,000 s.f. large box suburban supermarket model really suited for Washington, DC, particularly the goals of encouraging walkable communities and transit use? Are such supermarket models that depend on backing many SUVs up filled with large grocery orders compatible with the lifestyles of city consumers who several times a week buy a few items for dinner while walking home from the Metro?

    Interesting that Corey mentions the Wisconsin
    Giant, a project that will start construction very soon. Mary Cheh's office recently held a transportation summit that was packed with folks who supported the project and others who hadn't. Still, it was pretty clear that DDOT hadn't thought through some of the planning issues back when the project was being approved, like seriously misjudging the width of the street that the big trucks will take to the complex. DDOT's spokesman, Sam [name of klepto-dicatorship in Africa] seemed flummoxed with the questions. Actually felt sorry for the guy.

  • DC Guy

    Probably since DDOT's Sam came to DDOT long after those issues had been determined, and he probably wasn't aware of them.

  • er

    i'd rather see more, but small, quality grocers and specialty shops. they're coming anyway, but the city should actively encourage them. we don't need more SUPERMARKETS in most parts of the city. one stop shopping big box stores are not what we need.

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  • oboe

    Lydia's overall point applies to more than just Wegman's. Is the 60,000-80,000 s.f. large box suburban supermarket model really suited for Washington, DC, particularly the goals of encouraging walkable communities and transit use?

    This is the point that often seems overlooked. The desire to "land" a DC Wegmans seems only slightly less wrong-headed than wanting to land a Redskins training facility. Obviously, we'd see some increased tax revenue from a Wegmans, but less than if we had 3-4 smaller businesses. Jobs? Again, a diversity of reasonably sized businesses would provide more jobs.

    Setting those two things aside, can someone explain to me how having a 60,000 sq foot grocery complex in some auto-dependent part of town like Dakota Crossing is going to be different than just driving out to the one in PG County.

    It's like we're desperate to buy our own cow when we can have the milk from our neighbor's for free.

  • oboe

    In other words, "When, oh when, will DC get its very own Six Flags??? It's the best amusement park in the country!"

    "Can't you just drive the 15 minutes east of here?"

    "No! That's not *our* Six Flags!!"

  • er

    i'm holding out for Disney.
    airports do great business too. shame there aren't any in the city.

  • Dave

    "we don't need more SUPERMARKETS in most parts of the city."

    Spoken like someone who has an abundance of options at his or her doorstep.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    skipper -- generally I try to ignore comments like yours because I do plenty. I learned a long time ago not to write about what I am working on in my blog, for a variety of reasons.

    As it is, my advocacy locally gets in the way of my being able to do projects because my critical analysis is seen as controversial and critical, rather than analytical. It costs me jobs and $ and that sucks. But at least I have my integrity, which extends to not using anonymous handles in my Internet postings.

    And I have written plans as a consultant (for Cambridge, MD; Brunswick, GA) and as a bicycle and pedestrian planner for Baltimore County, MD, plus was paid to be a Main St. program manager (Brookland; the program is now defunct).

    That makes me a professional planner, and not "armchair" although yes, I don't have a planning masters degree and I should get one, if only to get better jobs...

    Process redesign recommendations in the Baltimore County plan were enacted by legislation in Feb. 2011, even though the plan was only recently approved by the Planning Board in April 2012, and still must be approved by the County Council before it becomes a legal document.

    My recommendation for council district BPACs was taken up by one of the Councilmembers already, and his committee is going great guns: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-county/towson/ph-tt-bike-beltway-0516-20120508,0,3169428.story

    WRT DC projects, there are 2-5 very interesting things cooking, some will likely come to fruition, others won't. Some I can't write about until the projects "deliver" in a couple years. And maybe I never can, because my involvement as part of a contractor/vendor is not supposed to be seen.

    Regardless, I don't think I am particular amazing, just 5-8 years ahead of the curve.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    oboe and others -- I have made the point about urban-supportive grocery stores for a long time, since being on the ANC6C planning and zoning committee, and tried to get Tortti Gallas to do one at CityVista.

    I wrote about it, basically, in the context of this blog entry

    - http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/12/urban-supermarkets-and-urban-design.html

    and later in this WBJ op-ed:

    - http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2010/08/30/editorial1.html

    If I had $20MM spare cash, I would gladly invest it in developing a grocery store to those specifications, or getting Ken Obel of Fox & Obel in Chicago (I had dealings with him years ago) to effectuate it here. Alas, I don't have that kind of money.

    WRT the point in my entry and in Lydia's piece, it's not that supermarkets aren't capable of doing more urban projects, Sobey's in Canada is particular adept, it's that it is outside of their normal DNA and they just can't do it without being forced.

    And it is only planning and elected officials that are really forward thinking that are willing to stand up and push against the inertia of doing the same thing over and over.

    The Jonathan OConnell piece in the Post on Sunday quotes Ellen McCarthy as stating that they were very firm with the CityVista developers about having an active into the late night use at the corner of 5th and K Streets NW.

    That is very exceptional for the OP to stand up against a developer like that.

    Although I will say that it happened under Mayor Williams more than people think, even though it wasn't perfect.

    E.g., under Mayor Williams OP came out against a gas station at the 300 block of H St. NE. Under Mayor Fenty, the Dep. Mayor of Planning and Ec. Development (and therefore the OP) would not take a stand against a gas station on the 1400 block of Maryland Ave. NE.

    OP and DDOT for the most part did not push Walmart in significant ways wrt their plans for 6 stores in DC. Part of that was different locations had different underlying conditions, e.g., Skyland, and the city didn't feel they could push for a better Walmart say on GA Ave. because they gave up leverage because for political reasons they wanted Walmart for political reasons to commit to Skyland, a very much languishing project in W7.

  • er

    well dave, what portion of the city do you think needs supermarkets? certainly not everywhere since apparently i live in a bountiful neighborhood. that's not true, but you seem so sure of yourself.

    i still think that we don't need more big box places like wegmans.

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