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Honey, We Shrunk the Big Box!

But there’s more to taming mega-retail than size restrictions

November 30, 2005 | By Rob Wooley
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


A Whole Foods store in Alexandria, Va., blends well with the surrounding new urbanist-style development, designed by JBG Rosen Retail.

Earlier this month Charlevoix Township voters again stood up to property rights and big-box retail store propaganda and, by a sizeable margin, upheld a local ordinance that restricts the size of big-box stores in their community to 90,000 square feet.

But the victory for big-box opponents—which comes just over a year after Wal-Mart abandoned plans to build a 200,000 sq. fot. supercenter in the scenic northern Michigan township—has already raised another urgent question. What should the community do about the design and location of the very sizeable stores that companies, according to the new ordinance, can still build?

The township ordinance, which passed 340 to 215, puts significant strictures on big boxes. New stores larger than 20,000 square feet now need special use permits; applications for buildings larger than 50,000 square feet must be accompanied by developer-financed market feasibility and traffic studies and a firm plan for what becomes of the building if the company closes its operation there.

But there are other considerations.

Where should the township allow the buildings to be constructed? What should they look like? How much should they be required to blend—visually and functionally—with the surrounding landscape? Charlevoix Township—and other communities that have managed to place size limits on traditional big box stores—still have more work to do. Happily, stories from around the country indicate that these additional steps are not only important, but can be quite successful.

New Designs Respect Community Rights
Beyond basic requirements for safety and accessibility, few big-box stores have been subject to much regulation of how they look, how they are constructed, or how they relate to the community and the streets they’re located on. Without such requirements, few developers bother to invest in architectural detail or decorative features that would enhance the look of their buildings and help them blend with the surrounding community’s character, much less propose new designs that eliminate the vast, unsightly, and environmentally damaging seas of asphalt that invariably surround them.

But in recent months, some new urbanists and big-box opponents have seen genuine, if small, signs that a number of retailers are now thinking outside the big box. Retail grocers such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s Inc. are building more aesthetically pleasing stores by incorporating mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly designs into their stores.

Other communities have also effectively made the case for smart local redesigns with certain big-box retailers, persuading them to institute more atheistically pleasing, pedestrian-friendly layouts with better landscaping, more appropriate facades, storefront windows, even energy-efficient roofs. For example, in 2002, when a Wal-Mart moved into a New Orleans historic district, city planners convinced the company to drop its standard big-box construction. Instead, the St. Thomas store, with its brick masonry, historic light fixtures, and five small, dispersed parking lots (instead of one gigantic one), resembled the distinctive, 19th-century warehouse design seen elsewhere in the Big Easy.

And earlier this month USA Today reported that efforts to rebuild towns along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast are including the possibility of “new urbanist Wal-Marts”—stores that are smaller, pedestrian friendly, mixed with residential development, and featuring parking that’s behind, rather than in front of, the stores, thereby eliminating those forbidding asphalt seas.

So, when property rights advocates claim that new urbanist design standards are merely a subterfuge meant to drive national retailers out of town, folks must reply, patiently, that property owners, realtors, and business leader and community leaders actually do want to have national stores compete in their local market places and offer needed services. But they must also say that, as area residents, they have a right to work together to design their communities—no matter how suburban, new, or low-to-middle income they are—so that they are attractive and walkable, not ugly and totally auto-dependent.

Mixing It Up Downtown
The slight but real change in big-box mentality is encouraging. Yet many Smart Growth and new urbanist proponents argue that there is still a fine line between new urbanist design standards and what most big box companies are currently willing to build. In fact, many in New Orleans say that the St. Thomas project is still too large, with its five-acre footprint and 900-space parking lot.

And sometimes choosing a different edifice, one that better matches the surrounding, does not do much good. For example, the 200,000 sq. ft. Wal-Mart Superstore in Gaylord, Michigan attempted to fit into the Bavarian village theme so commonly associated with that northern Michigan town, but many residents there argue that the store is still not atheistically pleasing, remains unfriendly to pedestrians, and still looks and feels just like the big box that it is.

That is why, to fully get away from the look and feel of a big box, many developers are now considering ways to incorporate big-box retailers directly into the new, mixed-use, new urbanist projects that are soaring in popularity in many parts of the country. Such projects require far more skill to pull off successfully than the typical suburban shopping center, office park, or apartment complex, but some traditional big-box retailers are starting to embrace them.

One particularly hopeful example: Some grocers no longer insist on constructing a 75,000 sq. ft. big box sitting on a big, black lake. Many are now building and operating slightly smaller stores that come up to the sidewalk, have residential units on their second or third floors, small shops along their perimeter, and—in dense urban settings—parking underneath.

The chain best known for its success with fitting into walkable urban districts is the  Texas-based Whole Foods Market. Specialty-store operators such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s “are creating pedestrian-oriented models with parking under or over the store,” says Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

These companies are now building in downtowns. They often have underground or roof parking, are more amenable to multiple entrances and specialty areas, such as a coffee shop, a bakery, or a flower shop, that open directly on the street, and allow upstairs housing. They are exactly the kind of standards that communities should demand as companies continue to insist that carving up open space and farmland is their only option.

Optimism and Bold Action
In fact, big-box opponents should constantly remind themselves that the light at the end of the tunnel is steadily getting brighter and that their tenacity can help them get the kind of stores their community deserves. Indeed, the USA Today article’s assertion that senior Wal-Mart officials are in fact considering building smaller, “old-fashioned town” stores that fully embrace new urbanist design standards sent shockwaves through the new urbanist community, even though Glen Wilkens, the community affairs manager for Wal-Mart’s Southeast region, was careful to caution the paper that “we haven’t made any commitments…we definitely want to keep our options open.”

Given the complete intransigence of so many big-box chains just a few years ago, however, Mr. Wilkens’ comments offer some cause for optimism.

And with many large landowners, particularly in rapidly growing areas such as northwest Michigan, eager to sell their property to companies like Wal-Mart, Meijer, and Target, the questions of exactly what a modified, somewhat downsized big box should look like and how it should function demand big, bold answers. In other words, when citizens say loudly and clearly that they don’t want a behemoth, 200,000 sq. ft. big box in their midst—which is exactly what those Charlevoix Township voters did—they must also ask the next questions: Where should future retail development happen, if at all, and what it should look like?

In Charlevoix, the question is: Do area residents want a brand new, separate town center of their own out in the township, with a “main street” feel, or should they work to contain all retail, say, within the City of Charlevoix’s downtown?

And if big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, or Whole Foods are beginning to work with communities to design more aesthetically pleasing facilities that fully embrace new urbanism, should communities in northern Michigan jump on the bandwagon and embrace new, “downtown” stores? Experience and current trends do suggest that towns or townships that restrict the footprints of big-box stores and then work with companies to find locales and designs that make sense for everyone involved, not just the company’s tradition-bound managers, can build attractive, prosperous communities.

So it’s high time for people to think and act boldly. Citizens and leaders could avoid a lot of conflict with developers over tearing up greenfields and laying more pavement if they began working now for a downtown Target or Wal-Mart or whatever, with an urban street-front façade—something that would anchor their downtown shopping districts and include within their new design smaller retailers.

Policy Specialist Rob Wooley manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County office. Reach him at rob@mlui.org

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