Wal-Mart Adapts Stores to Fit Cities' Culture

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville has taken a lichen to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's "green roof" program, literally.

The world's largest retailer plans to plant a low-profile garden — most likely consisting of sedum, moss and lichens — on half of the rooftop of its first store in Chicago, a one-story, 150,000-SF structure being built in a westside neighborhood known as Austin. The store, which is slated to open in 2005, will be the first Wal-Mart anywhere to have a green roof.

It's part of an effort to combat the "urban heat island effect," said John Bisio, a spokesman for Wal-Mart. In the summer, Chicago tends to be seven to 10 degrees hotter than the surrounding suburbs because of the city's vast expanses of concrete and dark rooftops.

It's one example of what Wal-Mart does to fit into the landscape of cities where there's no room for the company's usual 200,000-SF big-box Supercenter. In Los Angeles, the company has retrofitted existing buildings, and in New Orleans, it has designed a new building that looks like an old warehouse.

Green Chicago

Rooted in Europe, the green-roof trend is slowly growing across the United States.

Mayor Daley began encouraging the environmentally driven green-roof program in 2001. Since then, about 70 buildings in the city have used grasses and plants as part of the their roofing systems, not just potted plants on the roof.

Mayor Daley set an example with Chicago's City Hall, which takes up almost an entire block. At a cost of about $1 million, half of the City Hall roof is now covered with 20,000 different species of plants.

Michael Berkshire, green-projects administrator for the Chicago Department of Planning & Development, said a test on the City Hall roof on a 90-degree day last summer showed a dramatic difference in temperatures. On the half of the building without the garden, the roof temperature was 170 degrees. On the green half of the roof, the temperature was 90 degrees. Green roofs also keep buildings warmer in winter.

That can translate to a 20-30 percent reduction in utility bills for the floor directly underneath the green roof, Berkshire said. In Wal-Mart's case, there will only be one floor in its Chicago building, so the company should save considerably on heating and cooling bills for that store.

Berkshire said Wal-Mart was open to the suggestion of a green roof on the company's building in Chicago. It's the first "big-box retailer" to participate in the city's green-roof program, he said, although Target Inc. had Weston Solutions install a 9,964-SF green roof atop one of its smaller Chicago stores last year. Wal-Mart's green roof will be almost eight times that size.

"We talked to [Wal-Mart] about it," said Pete Scales, a spokesman for Chicago's Department of Planning and Development. "They seemed to think it was a reasonable thing."

John Bisio, the Wal-Mart spokes-man, said the company has been building stores with white rooftops for at least seven years now, but the foliage on the roof will be an added benefit to urban Chicago.

"It will keep things cooler in the summer, beautify the area and reduce air pollution," he said.

L.A. Redux

In Los Angeles, Wal-Mart renovated two former mall anchor stores. In its television ads, Wal-Mart depicts employees and area residents saying the new stores have helped revitalize depressed areas of L.A.

"It creates jobs and hope for the community," said Peter Kanelos, a Wal-Mart community affairs spokes-man in San Diego. Other retailers often open near new Wal-Mart stores.

In 1998, Wal-Mart renovated a two-story building that previously housed a Broadway department store in a mall in L.A.'s Panorama City, a northern part of the city that has a large Hispanic population.

Retrofitting an existing building can cost Wal-Mart more than building one of its prototype stores, said Daphne Moore, director of community affairs for Wal-Mart's southeast region.

"We pretty much just took over the building," Moore said of the former Broadway store. "The challenge was more for us to adjust operations to an existing building. One of our biggest challenges is in traffic flow, ensuring that we can adapt existing traffic and loading areas to the operations of our store."

In January 2003, Wal-Mart opened its first three-story store in a 150,000-SF building that previously housed a Macy's store in south L.A.'s Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, an 850,000-SF mall that was built in 1988. Baldwin Hills' population is primarily African-American and Hispanic. About 1.2 million people live within a five-mile radius of Crenshaw Plaza.

The Baldwin Hills store has about 450 employees, 75 percent of them full-time. The Panorama City store has 375-400 employees, Kanelos said. Most Wal-Mart stores have 300-350 employees.

"All of our stores employ people from the general community," Kanelos said.

Several Los Angeles officials have praised Wal-Mart for opening a store in Baldwin Hills. Former Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks and John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, have talked about the positive impact of the three-story Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart has two other stores in the Los Angeles area, bringing the total there to four. The company plans to open the first Supercenter in L.A. this year.

Kanelos said he couldn't talk about financials for individual Wal-Mart stores but said the Baldwin Hills and Panorama City stores "are doing as well as the company expected them to do."

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Crenshaw Plaza Wal-Mart's sales were "higher than expected" in the first quarter after it opened.

Warehouses of New Orleans

New Orleans may be called "The Big Easy," but opening a store in the middle of town has been anything but easy for Wal-Mart.

A $15 million, 203,000-SF Wal-Mart Supercenter is under construction on a site that was previously home to the St. Thomas housing project in the Lower Garden District. The Wal-Mart will anchor a $318 million mixed-use development on the 50-acre site.

Preservationists weren't smiling at the idea of a Wal-Mart store in the historic neighborhood, although much of the area along Tchoupitoulas Street is lined with empty warehouses and shotgun houses.

A store in the middle of town would create jobs and keep tax money in the city, Wal-Mart argued. Opponents said the store would hurt small businesses.

Bumper stickers and yard signs reading "Wal-Mart: Proud to Kill Our Home" and "No Sprawl-Mart" popped up all over the city.

To fit in with the existing architecture, Wal-Mart designed a building that looks like a 50-year-old warehouse. The company is preserving a cotton press at the site, Moore said.

The new Wal-Mart is scheduled to open by the end of the year.

Moore noted that residents of that area of New Orleans spent more than $100 million last year at two Wal-Mart stores outside of the city limits.

Some Garden District residents may be snooty about their stores, but apparently they don't mind driving to the suburbs to shop at Wal-Mart.