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Big Box Blues

by Jill Walker

May 4,2005

At a recent neighborhood presentation for a proposed Lowes superstore in South End/Dilworth, they had a go-to team that was stacked higher than the 2 by 4’s in their lumber aisles. I mean a former city planning manager, former city transportation specialist, former planning commission chair, and one of Charlotte’s preeminent rezoning lawyers, in addition to architects and land use specialists. Not for nothing is Lowes a Fortune 50 company and the world’s second largest home improvement retailer.

When the news originally surfaced that Lowes was eyeing a site in the South End/Dilworth area I was intrigued. With the pressure to create density along the rail corridor and the inherent understanding (vis-à-vis the city’s plans) that all accompanying development must contribute to a pedestrian-sensitive, stimulating, street-level urban environment, my thought was – go for it Lowes! You’ve got the country’s biggest toolbox. Break open the latch and show us some true urban architecture for the 21st century.

Instead they chose to simply disguise their big box (178,000 s.f.!) format. They wrapped it up with a few condos on the exterior and topped it off with a garland of rooftop greenery. On paper, it was a pretty thing. Unwrap it and your still looking at a big box.

A second presentation brought a revision to their site plan. It was a commendable piece of work, reflecting an effort to address some of the most obvious concerns of the neighborhood relating to accessibility and car and truck traffic. If a big box did make sense in this area, this plan had a lot going for it. But it doesn’t make sense.

There are two dominant issues that emerge from this particular project. The first one is how in the world the city can support a suburban big box traffic-magnet in an area that needs to create urban density to support the pending light-rail line.

On Friday, Jennifer Dorn, the Federal Transit Administrator, was in Charlotte to sign the $193 million commitment the Bush Administration made to the construction of the rail line. In her recent commentary in the Observer, she spoke of the “enormous strides” our city has taken towards its development goals through land use plans, and the FTA-sponsored study that expects 65,000 or more families or singles wanting to live within ½ mile of a rail station.

The proposed Lowes, including its parking lot and the forty to sixty condos, sit on almost twelve valuable acres. The density works out to almost five units per acre. That’s hardly contributing to density bordering a rail line, and does not represent a good faith effort on Charlotte’s part to be good stewards of this generous federal subsidy.

The second issue is the potential that Lowes has to be a pioneer. Home improvement stores have explored terrain right up to the farmer’s fence. But times have changed. People in the cities are tired of packing a lunch to buy a new ceiling fan. And stores like Lowes are finding new frontiers.

This site in South End/Dilworth represents a unique opportunity for Lowes to recreate itself. To design a prototype ‘urban’ establishment that genuinely conforms to the basic guidelines of urban design. That actually helps encourage the street-level urban thing that is so vital to the success of this area. This could be a beacon for Lowes that other cities such as Atlanta or Miami would clamor for. Not to mention, the coolest place to browse on the weekends.

Lowes seems to remain rigidly married to its traditional big box design. The brick façade on South Boulevard alone is almost a tenth of a mile long! (Hello pedestrians?) I think they underestimate their Charlotte customer. We really don’t mind re-learning a new store plan. We are actually quite capable of stepping into an entirely new Lowes and finding hammers down a different aisle.

It remains to be seen whether Lowes will change this site plan. And if not, whether Charlotte has the political will to honor its commitment to transit-oriented development and challenge this “so last week” big box to re-tool itself.

Final note: This will be my last column for Charlotte Viewpoint. It has been a unique privilege for me to contribute to such a worthy endeavor.

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