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Howling at Big Box Sprawl

Monstrous stores invite new activism over town design

January 5, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Tim Boyle/Getty Images
  From Maryland to Hood River, Oregon, David-and-Goliath battles over big box sprawl are playing out with lawsuits, packed public hearings, and citizen activism to defend community character and the quality of life.

Shoppers by the millions flocked to Wal-Mart’s stores this holiday season and the company now earns more money than General Motors.

I wish I could be pleased. But I’m not.  

Even as I respect Wal-Mart for its brilliance in marketing and distributing products, I am saddened by its insensitivity to the desire of Americans to live in places that foster a sense of community. Wal-Mart recently announced plans to build over 200 “super centers” in 2003. Because other retailers mimic Wal-Mart in order to compete, the retail industry is now a driving engine of sprawl, turning suburbs into congested landscapes of cavernous, windowless, dispiriting buildings surrounded by fields of pavement.

I’m far from alone in my concern. In town after town, from Maryland to Oregon, David-and-Goliath battles over big box sprawl are playing out with lawsuits, packed public hearings, and citizen activism.

Though the battles over super stores are not new, the principles behind them are changing. Most Americans like stores with low prices and a large selection of merchandise. That’s why big box stores have grown so fast.  But having seen the consequences for their Main Streets and neighborhoods, many of those same price-conscious shoppers now ask:  Why they can’t they have low prices and community-friendly retail stores?

Those new issues have turned the skirmishes over big box sprawl, which are growing more numerous, into a kind of civic referendum on how American towns will look and function. The town by town fights are helping to help determine what role, if any, people have in designing their own communities.

Late in 2002, for instance, the Coalition for the Preservation of Chestertown won the latest round in an exhausting, ten-year battle to prevent Wal-Mart from establishing a beachhead for sprawl on the outskirts of Chestertown, a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  A circuit court upheld the local planning commission’s rejection of a super store that residents feared would destroy their town center. 

Thanks to civic activism Evanston, Wyo., Ft. Collins, Colo., and Buckingham Township, Pa. have created design standards and other tools to reduce the negative impacts of big-box sprawl.  Peachtree City, Ga., bans “scorched earth” contracts that prevent landlords from re-renting buildings vacated by big-box tenants. Through its “Smart Growth” policy, Maryland pulled the plug on subsidies for retail sprawl.  Using petitions and media strategies, citizens in Westford, Massachusetts “just said no” to a proposed sprawl-mart.

One of the newest struggles is in Hood River, Oregon, a city of 5,600 residents that sits in the Columbia River Gorge, a spectacular river canyon whose history and natural beauty draw two million visitors a year. Unlike many small towns, Hood River still has a lively center with attractive historic buildings, locally owned stores, and a small town way of life.  Residents would like to keep it that way. Local land use and economic development policy calls for centralizing commercial activity, not scattering it randomly about.

In 2002 Hood River County passed an ordinance that limits the size of retail stores to 50,000 square feet.  But shortly before the ordinance went into effect a developer filed an application to build a 185,782-square-foot Wal-Mart super center. The project would cover the equivalent of nine city blocks. Its four-acre building is set amid seven football fields worth of asphalt. It’s two and a half times larger than Hood River’s largest existing building, which, ironically, is a 72,000-square-foot Wal-Mart likely to become a vacant eyesore when the super-center replaces it. This behemoth is expected to generate as many as 10,000 car trips a day. 

 A local group, Citizens for Responsible Growth opposes the project and has mounted a campaign to stop it.  The group gathered petition signatures, created a web site (www.hoodriversfuture.org), turned members out for public hearings, distributed fliers illustrating the store’s dramatic (and negative) impact, and hired experts to analyze the project’s effects on the environment and traffic. The local planning commission staff recently recommended to reject the super center. Wal-Mart’s developer has asked for more time to address the staff’s concerns and the outcome of this battle remains in doubt.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away residents of Sandfly, Georgia, a small African-American community near Savannah, are duking it out with the powers behind a 204,247-square-foot Wal-Mart.  Here, too, the sense of community is seen as threatened. Much of Sandfly’s community life has centered on its churches, but they now stand in the way of strip development attracted by the proposed super center.

James Miller, a member of Save Our Sandfly (SOS) noted the waste that’s occurred at a now vacant Wal-Mart in nearby Savannah: “It’s just a big empty place now.  Beautiful oak trees once stood there.  But they tore them all down.  They stayed there a few years and then said: ‘We want a bigger store five miles down the road.’”

Many Sandfly residents descend from slaves who, upon being freed, acquired land.  Since the freedmen couldn’t afford to pay contractors to build their homes, they helped each other build their houses.  “We’ve supported each other going all the way back to the days of slavery,” Mr. Miller says.

Given Wal-Mart’s size and expertise is it too much to ask that the company find a more community-friendly, less environmentally destructive model for itself and its imitators to follow?

Constance Beaumont, the author of Challenging Sprawl and several other important books on community preservation, is state and local policy director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. Reach her at constance_beaumont@nthp.org.  For more articles by the Elm Street Writers Group and on other Smart Growth topics see the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Web site at www.mlui.org.


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