Tom Eblen

What’s next for Walmart site? Trouble or a ‘very big redevelopment opportunity?’

Bird’s-eye view of closing Richmond Road Walmart

The Walmart on Richmond Road, Lexington's first Walmart, will be closing.
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The Walmart on Richmond Road, Lexington's first Walmart, will be closing.

The Walmart store at Richmond Road and Man O’ War Boulevard opened just 25 years ago. Then it was the hottest thing in retail development. Next month, it will be history.

Walmart announced this week it would close the store Aug. 10. Without a strong anchor tenant, how long will the dozen other shops in Mist Lake Plaza hang on?

The shopping center’s owner, Houston-based Brixmor Property Group, says it “will actively seek to fill this space with best-in-class retailers.”

Good luck with that. Shopping centers anchored by big-box stores are going the way of malls, becoming the new dinosaurs of suburbia. A record 6,700 stores closed nationwide last year, including many big-boxes. So far this year, another 3,000 stores have closed, including Toys R Us at South Park and the Babies R Us in Hamburg.

Real estate trends can change quickly and dramatically, which is why government land-use planning must be a long game, not just a reaction to economic passions of the moment.

The silver lining here is that the 24-acre Mist Lake Plaza site is ripe for reinvention, thanks in part to a recent change in Lexington zoning law.

“With some imagination and thought, this could be a very big redevelopment opportunity,” said James Duncan, director of Lexington’s Division of Planning.

Duncan said he hasn’t talked yet with Brixmor officials. But if they are interested in redeveloping, he thinks this parcel is an ideal candidate to be rezoned from B-3 “highway service business” to B-6P “planned shopping center.”

Aerial photo of construction of the Mist Lake Plaza shopping center at the corner of Richmond Road and Man O’War Blvd on June 2, 1993. The site includes a 360 foot retaining wall that ranges in height from 5 feet to 35 feet and contains 17,000 to 18,000 blocks. It was the highest keystone block wall in Kentucky at the time of construction. The plaza contained the city’s first Walmart. Photo by Tom Woods II | Staff Tom Woods II Herald-Leader

That zoning category was amended in March to, as the law says, “create centers of activity that promote commerce and retail along major corridors within the community, while supporting existing residential neighborhoods and incorporating new residential opportunities in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan.”

Among other things, the changes reduced the amount of parking required so places like Mist Lake Plaza don’t have to waste a lot of space on unused asphalt. It also allows more and denser commercial construction on sites, and it allows developers to add apartments to the mix of stores and offices.

It’s called mixed use, like the new Summit at Fritz Farm development at Nicholasville Road and Man O’ War. That’s the way Lexington and every other city was organized before the late 1940s, when a wave of well-intentioned but misguided zoning laws redesigned cities and suburbs to serve automobiles instead of people.

Two things make Mist Lake Plaza especially attractive for B-6P redevelopment, Duncan said. For one thing, it is separated from the highways by higher elevation — and a huge retaining wall that has always been the butt of jokes.

For another, the property backs up to Mount Tabor Park, a lovely but well-hidden, 13-acre oasis for the surrounding neighborhood of homes and apartments. By redesigning the commercial property to take advantage of the park’s green space, instead of hiding it, both places could become more popular.

Susan Speckert, executive director of the sustainable land-use advocacy group Fayette Alliance, agrees with Duncan that the site has a lot of potential.

“Lexingtonians consistently indicate their desire for innovative, walkable, mix-use developments,” she said. “We encourage the landowners to consult with neighbors in the area to discuss their redevelopment plans.”

Lexington is on the cusp of a second wave of suburban retail redevelopment. Many more big-box stores will close in the years ahead, and many more shopping centers will need to become something new. I just hope this second wave of redevelopment works out better than the first. The old Turfland and Lexington mall properties certainly could have become much more than they are.

Lexington’s Division of Planning seems to have a smart, practical vision for this kind of redevelopment: Retail and office space that meets modern needs combined with apartments along major corridors served by public transportation. It sounds good in theory. Mist Lake Plaza could be a great place to try to make it work.