With the support of the mayor, the aldermen, and even unions that have long opposed it, Walmart is coming to the South Side of Chicago. What will be joining the 150,000-square-foot Super Center on the sprawling 180-acre site remains less certain. Whatever gets built, it will bring economic activity to a depressed corner of the city, part of the reason Walmart succeeded against such stiff opposition.
When the council approved the new store on June 30, with it came a masterplan for hundreds of units of housing and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail and recreation space. The developer, David Doig, said those elements will be phased in over the next decade, after infrastructure work is completed on the site and Walmart opens, possibly by the spring of 2012.
Walmart’s campaign to increase its Chicago presence has been underway for several years. The company was unsuccessful in landing a store in the middle-class South Side neighborhood of Chatham. Local businesses opposed the project because they feared the competition, and unionists and community groups argued Walmart’s notoriously low wages and business practices would undermine workers citywide. Without the support of the local alderwoman, the project was practically dead on arrival.
Walmart then turned its attention to Pullman, where Doig and Pullman Alderman Anthony Beale had struggled to find tenants for the retail component of their Pullman Park development. “No one else was interested in our community,” Beale said. The recession aided Walmart’s efforts in an unusual way. The city was desperate for development, as were the construction trades, whose workers were experiencing widespread unemployment in the downturn. This allowed Walmart to pit one group of unions against the other, though the company did eventually agree to a starting wage of $8.75, 50 cents above the state minimum though short of the $9.25 the retail unions were seeking.
Ultimately what won over the recalcitrant council was Beale and the overwhelming support he enjoyed from his community. Pullman is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, even by South Side standards, with virtually no retail or recreational facilities. While Walmart may be unpalatable to the Hyde Park set, it is about as good as it gets for Pullman, where many of the area’s working class residents must leave the area to go shopping, even for necessities such as groceries or socks.
Another factor that has helped the overall project is how intensively it has been planned, including some 60 community outreach sessions. While planning and Walmart have not always gone hand-in-hand, George Pappageorge, principal of PappageorgeHaymes Partners, said his firm has worked hard to convince the retailer of its benefits, and Walmart has been receptive. The parking lot—the entire site will have a whopping 3,008 non-residential spaces—will be landscaped and have permeable pavers. The site will have zero storm water runoff, managed through three large retention ponds and green roofs.
Walmart has even agreed to alter the appearance of its building so it blends in better with its surroundings, which is appealing in Pullman, one of the city’s largest historic districts. “They’re not willing to mimic the historic buildings, but they were at least willing to look at the color palette and the material palette and make a nod in that direction” PappageorgeHaymes senior associate Timothy Kent said.
Doig said the first phase of the project will include the Walmart and another 250,000 square feet of big-box retail. Toward the end of phase one, work on a 125,000-square-foot recreation center in a former steel mill will commence, with planned completion by 2014. The second phase will include more urban-scale retail on the site’s southern edge, along 111th Street. “The idea is to create a gateway to the rest of the Pullman community,” Pappageorge said.
Once the retail is in place, housing developers will build out the rest of the site in two phases, with upwards of 1,150 units, including a mix of townhouses and bungalows. As part of a TIF development receiving city subsidy, 20 percent of the units will be affordable.
Connections between the development and the rest of Pullman are limited to two at the south and one in the north, due to the expressway on the east and a rail line and light industrial buildings on the west. They are also limited within the development. “It would be very hard to mix, in one place, a walkable, pedestrian neighborhood and big-box store,” Pappageorge said. “What we did was place them side-by-side, with the necessary ingredients so they can thrive independently and together.”
The project has bike lanes throughout and a bus route will be drawn in at 111th Street, terminating now at the stores. Pappageorge said it will be up to the housing developers to determine whether and how much of the housing will be sustainably built, though he did point out that even Walmart has been trending in this direction of late. Even preservationists and planners—including the Congress for New Urbanism—have expressed approval for the project. “This can’t do any harm to the historic district, and it's our hope that it will help restore it,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois.
“I believe, at the end of the day, Walmart will prove everybody wrong and be a huge supporter of the city of Chicago,” Beale said. The council finally seems to believe so, as it voted on July 28, less than a month after the Pullman vote, to approve a Walmart for Chatham.