Friday, February 13–New Big Box Design Impresses

SNOW HILL – Planners thought outside the big box and have decided to redesign the long-planned Super Wal-Mart, intended to replace Berlin’s standard Wal-Mart, changing the design to a more localized, attractive style.

Architect Gabriel Massa presented the new design to the Worcester County Planning Commission last week, seeking acceptance of the new plan.

The building was last before the Planning Commission in April 2006, and that design was only accepted after contentious discussion.

Wal-Mart has worked on improving its standard white-and-blue building over the last few years, said Mark Cropper, a local land use attorney representing the project.

Although he had doubts about presenting new plans to the Planning Commission after the lengthy discussions on the previous design, Cropper said he changed his mind when he saw the new elevations.

“I was less than aggressive in wanting to come back before the board. When I saw the elevation, I got to tell you I was pleasantly surprised,” Cropper told the commission.

The new plans also reflect Worcester County’s draft architectural guidelines, which have not yet been approved.

Until recently, Wal-Mart buildings featured cool colors and large signage, Massa said, but the megastore’s new direction focuses on warm colors and human scale.

“What we walked away with from these guidelines in human scale is very important,” Massa said.

The architect emphasized pedestrian friendliness, public spaces, reduced light pollution and a more local feel for the structure and surrounding spaces.

Brick and earth tones dominated the elevations shown to the Planning Commission. Smaller bronze signs took the place of massive blue ones. Awnings, both fabric and bronze, decorated the façade, with benches and plantings across the front. Instead of a chain link fence around the garden center, the new design used wrought iron.   

The monument sign at the entrance would also be reduced in size, similar to the sign at the Applebee’s restaurant near the Route 50 bridge. Of the building-mounted signs, only the store sign would be lit at night. The store sign will be only 377 square feet, versus 1,000 square feet. The new design also does away with ‘pharmacy’ and ‘superstore’ signs, as people know that Wal-Mart offers those services, Massa said.

The lighting around the store will be quite different, according to planners, focusing on downward directed light.

The new store will not have that glowing effect at night, said Wal-Mart regional counsel Tom Klein. Parking will also be constructed to new standards, said Cropper.

Massa looked at local buildings as described in the draft architectural guidelines, from Berlin to Ocean City.

“Every building has a base, a middle, and a top,” he said.

Public spaces and pedestrian connectivity were important, as was a streetscape feel. The new building will have three entrances, breaking up the front wall, and coastal cornice details.

Trees and plantings will also soften the building.

“We’re going to plant two very, very mature trees. We’re not going to wait for them to mature,” said Massa.

The building should age well, he said.

The new structure will also utilize green features, using half a million gallons of water less than other stores of the same size, according to Massa, and be 7 percent more energy efficient. Skylights will supplement electric lights.

Pre-cast concrete panels will be used to construct the walls, which will last longer, insulate better, and reduce construction noise and traffic.

“It’s going to considerably reduce the construction time,” Massa said.

The new Super Wal-Mart will be about 25,000 square feet smaller than the previous design. Plans call for the new store to be built behind the existing building, which would then be razed.

“It’s mind boggling because it’s so much better, especially the signs,” said Planning Commission member H. Coston Gladding.

“It’s an excellent job. I’m excited,” said commission member Betty Smith.

The Planning Commission was not being asked for an official approval.

“We really wanted to have a sense of we’re heading in the right direction with these new elevations,” said Klein.

The commission accepted the elevations unanimously, although it emphasized that acceptance is not the same as approval, a matter for later in the process.

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