Shopping is fun at Potomac Yard. Just watch out for the parking lot.

The parking lot at Potomac Yard stretches for half a mile along Route 1 in Alexandria. It could belong to the airport, except for the long, straight line of big-box retail stores that sit behind it. The row containing Shoppers Food Warehouse, Sports Authority, Barnes & Noble, Old Navy, PetSmart, Homeplace, and Target stretches out as far as the eye can see. IHOP sits like an island in the sea of blacktop.

The lot is so big that it virtually has streets. And the traffic is so busy and chaotic that the lot could use some stoplights. Everywhere,

cars speed along the nice wide road. And then—SCREECH!—brakes slam as a pedestrian ambles toward his car with an inflatable swimming pool, a case of Gatorade, and a six-pack of tiki torches that sell for $4 apiece. The distances in this mega-strip mall are so huge that almost no one walks from one store to the next.

But then, why would anyone? At Potomac Yard, everyone can park in front. That’s the beauty of the place.

You hear a lot these days about something called the “new urbanism.” From Rockville to Reston, suburbs are fighting back against the very sprawl that produced them. They’re embracing sidewalks and shunning SUVs. They want the locals to walk to the theater and maybe pick up an iced latte on the stroll home. And they’ve got the architectural drawings—look at those happy people sitting at that outdoor cafe!—to prove it.

In that context, the desolate stretch of Old Dominion blacktop that constitutes Potomac Yard looks anachronistic indeed. A towering monument to Eisenhower-era land-use planning, the place evokes the happy apex of the American century, when the world was our national parking lot. Like Colonial Williamsburg, it’s a living tribute to history.

Except for one thing: Potomac Yard is two years old. Even as media types were gushing over schemes to bring human-scale development back to suburbia, developers just spitting distance from the Potomac were pouring out asphalt by the tanker-load, throwing up windowless buildings, and getting ready to count their profits.

Today, the new old development is what James Howard Kuntsler—the chronicler of sprawl who wrote the seminal Geography of Nowhere—might describe as a “national automobile slum.” A half-mile in circumference, with more than 3,500 parking spaces, the strip mall is built to SUV specifications. The big parking lot accommodates the big cars required to cart out the big bundles of toilet paper, dog food, and tennis balls that can be bought here by the gross.

It’s everything Americans both love and hate about suburban sprawl—the disposable architecture, designed to last about as long as the developers’ 20-year lease, without a single building featuring the inconvenience of a second floor; the huge traffic jams just getting into Shoppers; the heat rising off the acres and acres of asphalt; and the dirt-cheap prices for buying in bulk. One neighborhood critic likes to call the whole place “a monument to the cheaper laundry basket.”

Not that planners didn’t talk for a while about going another way. The strip off Route 1 is the site of old railroad yards that sat fallow for years. For a while, local officials considered offering the site up for a potential Redskins stadium or a convention center. But being good Virginia Republicans, they had the sense not to waste public money on such frippery. (Besides, better to let the District waste its money building the convention center while Virginia sucks up the conventioneers in cut-rate hotels.)

Instead, the local governments in Alexandria and Arlington decided to develop the land with retail and office commercial space and some housing. The original plans for the site were idyllic examples of new urbanism, featuring mixed-use designs that would fit right in with the contemporary suburban vogue. Mixed-income housing was also part of the scheme, designed to blend in with retail development and a new Metro stop.

The ugly stretch of Route 1 would have been configured so that pedestrians from Del Ray, the neighborhood across the highway, would have been able to easily navigate the trip into the Yard. And the whole thing would have been centered around an old-fashioned town square.

Oops. The only town center so far is a big, ugly arched gateway that leads to—yes, more parking and a 16-screen movie theater. Predictably, the neighbors of Del Ray are up in arms about the gridlock on Route 1—which materialized despite the developers’ promises that traffic wouldn’t be a problem.

Gridlock is an ordinary enough suburban woe. But the parking lot is a hazard that no one ever contemplated. People constantly back up into pedestrians, rear-end other cars, or at least have near-misses—which all prompts consumer-unfriendly language and much bird-flipping. It’s only a matter of time before some poor shopper really takes one for the team. Amazingly, Capt. Gerald Wiggins, head of security, says that so far, the parking lot has seen no real injuries—”Knock on wood.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that no one ever walks all the way from Target to Shoppers. It’s just too far—especially if you’re, say, carrying a 40-pound bag of dog food. A few weeks back, an Inova Fairfax Hospital helicopter settled down on one end of the back parking lot just as the 9:30 movie let out at the other. Plenty of people looked curious, but only a few finally decided to rubberneck from up close. After a night of super-sized Cokes and popcorn at the theater, it was just too far to walk.

The stream of traffic is relentless—especially at Christmastime—and it runs right past the front of the stores, the delta for the river of pedestrians flowing in. Of course, Potomac Yard was designed for cars, not people, who some designer assumed would proceed in an orderly manner along a few prescribed crosswalks. Wiggins shakes his head and complains about those dastardly walkers. “People won’t go to the crosswalk,” he says. “They think they have the right of way.”

In fact, even though this version of Potomac Yard was supposed to be “pedestrian-friendly,” most human activity that isn’t related to driving or buying in bulk is verboten. That doesn’t keep people from trying. Wiggins says one guy regularly sneaks over in the early morning, before the stores open, to hit tennis balls against the wall of one of the windowless buildings. Security shoos him away.

The broad expanse of blacktop also makes a natural magnet for parents hoping to teach their teens to drive, for in-line skaters, and for locals in search of a place to play some early-morning football. But those folks get chased out, too. “Liability,” explains Wiggins. “We don’t allow that.”

Kids can ride bikes to the mall, says Wiggins. But only on the sidewalk.

Wiggins says that the lot is also the scene of some other, less savory activity. He says people will come in different cars, park on the edge of the lot somewhere, and get in one car to have sex. “It can be broad daylight, lunch break….Two females, two males—it varies,” he says.

Putting a parking lot that big out where people can see it is always risky business. After all, there are never enough cars to fill the whole lot just with Target shoppers. So, naturally, the long stretch of unoccupied space has become a hot spot for trucks and tour buses in search of a place to hang out while their tourist charges explore the National Mall. Then there are the Crystal City commuters, who want to park their cars at Shoppers and walk over to the Metro to get into town.

Wiggins puts a stop to all that, too. It is private property, after all.

Talking about the good safety record at the mall so far, Wiggins again knocks on the wood of his desk. Then he has to run. A call has come in. “Shoplifters at Shoppers,” he says as he bolts from his desk and runs outside—where he jumps in his security car and drives the 500 yards to Shoppers Food Warehouse, just like everyone else. CP