Hickok Cole Architects designed 345 residential units atop a 125,000-square-foot Walmart in the Fort Totten neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

If you heard that urban redevelopment in some Washington, D.C., neighborhoods was being spurred by Walmart, you might think it was a joke: Walmart, with its leviathan stores in the outer reaches of sprawl? But in a bid to crack urban markets, Walmart is piloting new, smaller store designs on infill sites, which sometimes integrate other uses and often connect with public transit. Its first two D.C. stores—out of an eventual total of six spread around the city—opened late last year. The third is now under construction in Fort Totten, a neighborhood a few miles north of the city’s downtown.

Fort Totten Square, designed by Hickok Cole Architects, is a sharp departure from the retailer’s usual formula. Hickok Cole is placing 345 residential units above a Walmart that, at 125,000 square feet, is hardly small, but is a step down from its “supercenter” format, which averages 180,000 square feet. On top of the Walmart, four stories of apartments will wrap around two large courtyards, one with
a swimming pool. At the northeast corner of the site, smaller stores and restaurants will occupy another 10,000 square feet. The Fort Totten Metro station, offering access to three subway lines, is a five-minute walk away.

With its staggered facades of dark composite panels and glass, the design is edgy for D.C. and for a neighborhood of older single-family homes. (On the neighborhood-facing, Third Street side, though, there is “a lot more brick,” notes Michael Hickok, the project’s lead designer.) The developer, JBG Companies, wants to attract some of the young people who have been moving to Washington in droves during recent years. Not all of them can afford to live downtown, and Fort Totten Square—within range of several universities, and not far from nightlife on H Street—could be an appealing option. The apartments will be market-rate but “competitively priced relative to other D.C. submarkets,” according to JBG’s Tony Greenberg.

So, this is the question for Hickok Cole, a D.C.-based firm that recently completed National Public Radio’s new headquarters: What was it like working with Walmart? “We went into it with great trepidation,” Hickok admits. The design team worried not just about the retailer’s wanting supersized signage, but also about the more prosaic challenge of putting residential plumbing above a grocery store—the risk of a bathtub’s leaking onto the lettuce and broccoli. But everyone was happy with the plumbing drawings, and branding wasn’t an issue either. “When we did the [main] facade, they were sensitive about our suggestion that we have an appropriate scale for that storefront,” Hickok adds.

Hickok tried to respect the scale of the neighborhood while fitting in parking, and without blowing the budget. He was helped greatly by the topography of the site: there is a 20-foot grade change from the front to the back. After the designers slotted in a level of parking underground and put the Walmart on top of it, the store was at grade at the front of the building, but invisible on the neighborhood side. Another unexpected boon: a high-pressure gas line that runs under the southwest corner of the site. “We literally could not build over it,” Hickok says. “Because of that, we got a natural plaza” right in front of the Walmart.

For years, Fort Totten was hardly touched by the development juggernaut that swept through so many D.C. neighborhoods. Some residents objected to Walmart’s coming in, but others welcome the jobs it will bring, and groceries that don’t require a drive across the border into Maryland. Fort Totten Square is expected to open in the first quarter of 2015.