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Here’s an easy way to get web traffic: Find some “news” about Wegmans locating in the District, even if it’s just an assurance that the city and the grocer may still be talking to each other, a year after they started. It’s the great white whale of food purveyors, forever lurking in the suburbs, and in the dreams of carless urbanites.
How realistic are those aspirations? Ward 7 residents recently put together a petition begging Wegmans to come their way, and most of their arguments boil down to how much the store would benefit residents—-but businesses make decisions on what would benefit them, not inner city neighborhoods. The fact that Wegmans would provide better nutritional options and jobs for idle youth is not a compelling case for them to come to your neighborhood.
The District’s fundamentals, though, are pretty impressive, at least in terms of Wegmans’ site criteria. According a top commercial broker, they need at least 90,000 square feet, and 75,000 people with median household incomes of at least $75,000 within the “trade area,” which is the area within which people will travel to get to the store. Walter Reed in Ward 4 would certainly fit the bill, as would the spot at Fort Lincoln that Target gave up (the ready-to-go sites in Ward 7, Capitol Gateway and Skyland, have already been taken by Walmart).
But that’s not the whole story. Looking at the sites that Wegmans has already and is planning in the D.C. area, they’re all located a few minutes from a major highway. And they all have massive, massive parking lots.
For that reason, Ward 4-based planner Richard Layman, who’s already been frustrated with the inability of D.C.’s zoning regulations to force better urban designs out of Walmart, thinks D.C. should give Wegmans a pass: A densifying city just can’t afford that kind of bad land use. “D.C. should know what it stands for,” he writes.
The fact that Wegmans is even talking about locating at Walter Reed, however, indicates that they’re willing to break from past practice: Georgia Avenue is no Capital Beltway, after all. Speeding up streetcar planning would help offset the lack of easy highway access, and it already has a 1,200 parking garage. And here, the District has unique leverage over any potential retailer: The city controls the site and is currently in the process of zoning it, which means they could require a grocery store to accommodate housing or other uses.
Wegmans builds the way it has over the years because nobody’s asked it to do anything different. In the suburbs, everybody’s just thrilled to get their gourmet cheese bar. The District doesn’t have that kind of land to burn, but it’s also the most desirable urban market in the country, and it’s worth Wegmans’ while to make Washington their first experiment with an urban format store. If Walmart can learn mixed use, which it’s at least doing in some places, then anybody can.