What might a big city Wal-Mart look like? Until now, such a question was only answerable through some imaginative speculation.

Wal-Mart has announced plans to open the first store within Chicago’s city limits in the Austin neighborhood this summer. The 145,000-square-foot facility will also be the first to have what is called a “green roof,” 67,000 square foot “covered like a rug with flowering, cactus-like plants that live in cold weather.”

The roof is designed by Roof-scapes, Inc. of Philadelphia and will “have only 3 inches of soil, no irrigation system and will be designed to reduce rainfall runoff and, in conjunction with other green roofs, lower the city’s air temperature,” according to Charlie Miller, a Roof-scapes spokesman.

But perhaps even more interesting than what the store will look like on the outside is what will be missing from the inside. According to the Sun-Times,

will have no full-line grocery store, a concession Wal-Mart made to the City Council, which feared Wal-Mart would undersell smaller grocery stores and put them out of business. Wal-Mart will sell a limited amount of non-perishable, frozen and refrigerated food in addition to clothing, electronics, jewelry and household goods, but will sell no fresh fruit or produce. Those restrictions were necessary to win City Council approval of a zoning change to clear the way for Chicago’s first Wal-Mart.

According to a 2003 project by the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, the Austin community had a median income of $33,633 in 2000, but “because it is so large, it has pockets of growing wealth, as well as signs of continuing poverty. ‘It’s interesting,’ described an Austin resident, “you’ve got the rich people and the poor people around here.’”

The City Council, in its wisdom, decided that there is a certain price level that groceries shouldn’t go under (in the interests of the community, of course).

What happened to consumer freedom? No one is forced to patronize Wal-Mart…the residents could willingly pay more at the smaller grocery stores if that’s what they wanted. They might well value cheaper produce more than they do intimate neighborhood stores.

Indeed, I suspect that the poorer residents of the neighborhood might rather spend their hard-earned money getting more for less at Wal-Mart. But that choice won’t be available in Chicago, at least not yet, thanks to the special interests of the Chicago City Council. (Thanks to John Powers for the tip.)