'Britain's Walmart' looks to build its own towns. Could Walmart do it here? Should it?

May 13, 2010

You have to wonder will Walmart one day use its billions and tremendous procurement power to do two things that would help stop it from getting border-checked when it comes seeking to build a new store: Either build the town itself, then put in the Walmart, or create a package with so many true public amenities that a city like Chicago--or anywhere---would have a hard time saying no.

Imagine that: a town or a city neighborhood predominantly financed, planned and built by Walmart. It could be George Pullman's company town revisited, maybe with a dash of Disney. Thank you for shopping--and living in--Walton 's Corner, a town for our times. Or, Welcome to Value Living; Welcome to Waltonville.

I'm not endorsing this idea. And Walmart is not proposing such a deal in Chicago. But I bring it up today after reading last night about the efforts of Tesco, the UK's Walmart-like retail giant. Tesco wants approval this month to build a store in East London. But the retailer itself would also build 400 homes, a school, hotel and a park. Local bodies would operate the public amenities, while Tesco would likely retain the leases, according to the London Evening Standard. The project would be located near the London 2012 Olympic Park. Three images of the proposed development accompany this post.

And there is more. Tesco wants to build 900 homes in the Woolrich district in South London, where the company has already built a library and a civic center. In addition, Tesco is looking to develop a quartet of self-contained mini-villages in South East England with Tesco stores, and construct "mixed-use living and leisure" development projects in northeast England, according to the London Times Online. Homes would be bought through Tesco real estate agents and mortgages would be created through the retailer's credit and financing arm.

Tesco is the world's third largest retailer with $90 billion in revenue last year. Walmart is the top dog internationally with 2009 revenue of $404 billion.

Like Walmart, Tesco gets slammed for its size, and is accused of homogenizing the retail experience, killing local main streets, squeezing suppliers and running out smaller competitors. So not everybody in the UK is thrilled about the retailer becoming a land developer. "Is this what we are to become: Tescoland?" asked Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel last week. "A place in which a superstore is our landlord, and can effectively eliminate its competition with clever planning or exorbitant rents?"

When I read about the Tesco issue, I expected to find renderings with a cheesy Ye Fake Olde Time aesthetic. Like the buildings and streetscapes in those horrible paintings by Thomas "Painter of Light" Kinkade. But the image in this post--on first glance, at least--show what might be some decent city planning. Residences are stacked into decently-scaled towers; the big Tesco store is not surrounded by lake of parking, but is located next to the rail stop. And a street runs through the 11-acre site. It looks like a modern insertion into a modern city.

But then I looked a little closer. Is it me, or did Tesco give its store the best spot, overlooking the canal, while leaving the residential buildings on the right to gaze at a bit of the park and a lot of the store.‚  And below: that wide plaza is almost unobstructed by anything, including significant landscaping. That's not a place for strolling comfortably--not to my eyes, at least. Wide and clear, was this route just made for shopping?

Still, might this kind of thing have currency in the U.S. someday? In Chicago?‚  Should it? With towns and cities struggling economically, might this be a solution? I look at some of the poorer southern suburbs of Chicago where foreclosures are high, property taxes are astronomical and city services are weak. If a retailer came in and remade the town , could things be any worse? I'm just throwing out questions today. You decide. What do you think? Comment freely below.