Before Walmart became the nation’s biggest employer, before it was synonymous with big-box retail, and before it was an international business competing with Amazon, it was a simple local store selling home goods in northwest Arkansas. In the company’s hometown of Bentonville, visitors to the Walmart Museum can see a to-scale replica of one of the company’s first locations, a quaint corner store captured in amber.
Today, Walmart’s footprint in Bentonville is much larger than a handful of folksy five-and-dime stores, and poised to become larger still. In May, the company announced plans to build a new campus spread across 350 acres just blocks from Bentonville’s downtown. A vast reimagining of the company’s headquarters, complete with of-the-moment design trends—mass timber construction and bike paths bisecting cafes and outdoor meeting rooms—the planned campus offers a vision of corporate evolution, showcasing the retailer as a high-tech, cutting-edge talent magnet. An early rendering shows a bolt of sunshine streaking across the campus, as if corporate Eden has arrived in northwest Arkansas.
It’s also a prime example of how corporations use—and, some might say, co-opt—the language of urbanism to present themselves as good neighbors and more attractive places to work. Walmart seeks to build a new neighborhood that will not only be a destination for tech workers, but also a new amenity for everybody in Bentonville.
In some ways, the design is a return to the walkable neighborhood feel that customers of Sam Walton’s original stores might have experienced, after decades in which Walmart became more closely associated with suburban sprawl and car-centric planning. With a wave of store redesigns, forays into urban markets, and investments by the Walton family foundation in the region near its main offices, Walmart, and Walmart money, has begun to support a vision of mass retail beyond big boxes.
“The new home office is designed to be integrated into the community, to be an inclusive, seamless part of the natural beauty of Bentonville,” says Walmart spokesperson Anne Hatfield.
Hatfield wouldn’t talk about the costs of the new home office. But as new phases of the project take shape through 2024, when it’s predicted to be complete, Walmart’s hometown presence will shift from a decentralized series of 20 buildings to a landscape of offices and cafes featuring smart building design, solar panels, and regionally sourced materials, connected by outdoor spaces landscaped with native and drought-tolerant plants.
“There have been investments over time to create a new urbanism in Bentonville,” says Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “It all fits with the new urban planning in town that’s creating a more walkable downtown.”
How Walmart is building its own hometown
Walmart’s massive Bentonville expansion—in part an attempt to lure talent to Arkansas—stands in sharp contrast to the way other megacorporations are seeking out real estate near talent. Amazon tried to play municipalities against each other for subsidies, Google has quietly acquired extensive real estate holdings in major cities, and Apple has created an isolated spaceship campus near Silicon Valley, California, but Walmart will build its new home in the place it was born, on land it already owns, a warren of warehouses and office buildings on the fringes of downtown Bentonville, bordered by Central Avenue, 14th Street, J Street, and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.
Devised by a team of design firms including Gensler, Sasaki, and SWA, the plan for the radical new campus still speaks the language of wellness, efficiency, employee connection, and non-hierarchical corporate structure found throughout modern management theory. Better buildings mean happier workers mean a more agile tech company (and Walmart will not let you forget that it is in many ways a tech company, having made significant investments in online retail, machine learning, and artificial intelligence).
“All their buzzwords are the same ones Google and Amazon are using,” says Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange. “There are two things to examine with this design: the message it’s sending for talent retention, and the benefit it provides to everyone in Bentonville.”
According to Doug Gensler, a firm principal who co-leads Gensler’s Walmart team, which is in charge of workplace buildings and the overall campus, the home office offers a unique opportunity to reimagine corporate campus design, especially in contrast to the archipelago of corporate HQ islands found in Silicon Valley.
Gensler describes the plan as a series of quads, like a college campus, arrayed amid the urban grid to create “neighborhoods within neighborhoods.” Meant to be flexible and adaptable as work styles shift over the decades, the buildings play second fiddle to the walkable landscape. The abundant natural light also answers a constant critique of Walmart’s infamously windowless offices.
“This isn’t miles of surface parking lots, loop roads, and controlled entrances,” he says. “You can drive through here like you drive through a city. The balance around security is very mindful, between being urban while reflecting the control necessary for a modern corporate campus.”
The home office will be near enough to downtown, as well as developing parts of town such as Eighth Street, which runs through the center of the development, to help pull development southeast.
“They’re not trying to build a 30-story skyscraper in a town where there isn’t anything else over five stories tall,” says Peacock. “It’s thoughtful. The only complaints I’m hearing are that the investment will raise property values and make traffic worse, but those are challenges found in any growing community.”
Can Walmart urbanism make a difference?
The planned campus, to be developed within an existing city that utilizes sustainable building practices and walkability, is much more sustainable than most ground-up campuses (“recycling” existing company-owned buildings is, the company argues, simply the “everyday low price” culture at the urban scale). But while a plan that includes bike paths—the goal is to have 10 percent of workers bike to work by 2023—native plants, and 15 acres of lakes is laudable, it’s still a relatively low-density plan that features a significant number of parking lots. Without new and nearby housing, will the campus truly change transportation patterns for thousands of employees? The environmental angle and the “shaft of sunlight across the campus,” according to Lange, seem as much about rhetoric as they are about results.
“Landscape architecture is being used the way an art program would have been at the corporate campuses of old,” she says. “The rest is kind of generic and faceless.”
Walmart’s new headquarters also come at a time when the company is rethinking the design, dimensions, and even purpose of its nearly 4,800 stores, the true measure of the corporation’s environmental footprint and community impact. In 2019, the company planned to remodel 500 stores, according to Hatfield (an outside source estimates a cost of over $1 billion), part of a larger effort to embed technology and delivery options into the shopping experience. The company’s training academies even utilize virtual reality to train associates, and a test store has deployed AI to restock shelves.
As retail shutters in response to the Amazon e-commerce onslaught, Walmart finds itself in a historically odd position, that of underdog. Increasingly, brick-and-mortar locations are seen as bulwarks against buying online, and have been remade in recent years to be more engaging and entertaining. The purest example of this is the company’s “exploratory concept” of reimagined Supercenters, the name for its larger locations, a project dubbed Walmart Reimagined. Strictly an idea at this point, these theoretical new stores would include adjacent “town centers” with lawns, entertainment stages, and places to sit and relax.
Separate from the company, the Walton Family Foundation has invested millions of dollars in its Home Region Program, which has funded new and ongoing design and architecture initiatives to benefit the community in and around Bentonville, with a focus on promoting a “sense of place.” The Design Excellence Program has hired progressive architecture firms, such as Arkansas’s Marlon Blackwell, to design civic buildings in the region, and the Waltons were the primary funder of the Crystal Bridges Art Museum and the forthcoming Momentary, a contemporary art space in town. The region’s bike renaissance, including the 36-mile Razorback Regional Trail that connects to the new campus, also comes thanks in large part to funding from the Waltons.
For decades, placelessness was a key part of Walmart’s game plan; its mastery of logistics and holding down costs made it a retail machine that could work anywhere. But now, it seems, the twin priorities of attracting top talent and making an existing store network more amenable and attractive to shoppers attuned to one-click consumption have given place a new importance.
Perhaps that’s the true takeaway of the proposed campus; retail, even for giants of the form, needs to adapt. Gensler says that the main goal isn’t to create some showy, super-contemporary campus, but rather achieve success with a campus that encourages local to enjoy the space. He says it’s rare that architects “want to be the supporting player,” but that’s how Gensler sees its role.
“We want to do it in a way that extends the city and becomes an extension of the city,” he says. “At the same time it embraces what people love about urban environments, it’s also a campus that fits the region and the context.”