Time to Reassess the Boxscape

Home in suburban Milwaukee for the Thanksgiving holiday this past weekend, I was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, into my very first Super Wal-Mart. From an urbanist's perspective, it was horrifying; one massive indoor space with a seemingly endless procession of aisles filled with every piece of crap you could imagine, stretching off to -- literally, it seemed -- the horizon. Indoors. It was the diametric opposite of "finely-grained." But the experience got me on the newly-minted bandwagon of architects and planners wondering aloud about how big-box and chain retail might be better integrated as metro areas shift and change over the coming decades. Redemption is not impossible for such places.

Last month, Wendy Waters wrote about new research from the University of Alberta that suggests that the presence of large, indiscriminate retailers like Wal-Mart can actually improve independent retail in the area by forcing owners to re-strategize and become more specialized in what they offer consumers. This makes plenty of sense: business owners that do nothing in the face of increased competition are hardly the kind of flexible, dynamic people that add to a local economy; nor are their businesses likely to be the ones that add to local character, which is often one of the most loudly mourned of the assumed casualties when big boxes come to town.

Wonkser (and long-time Where blog crush) Ryan Avent made another recent argument in defense of chain retail, suggesting that it strengthens urban economies and brushing off the argument that chains kill local retail:

Should we be upset when new chains move in? No, not really. There are reasons that chains do well nationally, namely, convenience and price. We should hold chains to high design standards, but there’s no reason to deny local residents access to chain retail. I have seen folks argue that chains are bad because they take profits elsewhere, but this is essentially an autarkic argument–that we’d be better off doing everything for ourselves. Obviously, that’s not the case. Successful businesses provide value for consumers, and preventing those businesses from operating here would deny consumers that value. Sometimes scale economies are important, such that national chains can deliver sharply lower prices. This is good for local consumers, who should be free to decide when they want to spend their money on independent retail and when they just want the best deal available. Moreover, many District [of Columbia] firms benefits from national and international business. A local only model leaves everyone poorer...

...It’s important to remember that chains can complement indie business. Some folks want to spend their money at an indie home furnishings store and save money by shopping at Giant. Others want to save money on their furniture by shopping at Target, and go all out at a local organic grocer. It takes all kinds.

Avent also makes the case in his post for the densification of areas looking to increase commercial vibrancy. In urban areas, where parking is scarce, businesses must draw on the local population for revenue; thus, independent retail flourishes in densely populated areas; the residential use must come first. It follows, then, that anyone looking to increase the diversity of businesses in an area currently starved for independent, specialized retailers should focus on increasing residential diversity. Re-thinking big box stores like Super Wal-Mart will require a residential component of some sort. We've been seeing this type of thinking slowly take shape as malls have begun incorporating condos over the past decade or so; more recently, strip malls have started looking at residential retrofits as a solution to waning consumer interest.

I can't help but wonder what it might be like to live in, around, or on top of a reclaimed Wal-Mart. The idea that the suburbs of today will look vastly different a few decades from now is an enticing one, but it's still difficult to imagine what, exactly, they might look like. Hopefully, as urbanists, we can learn to stop avoiding these stores entirely (I know I'm not the only one who does it) and start thinking more constructively about their future uses. The sooner the better, it would seem.

(Photos from Flickr user austrini, and from bustler.net. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Patrick said...

Wendy Waters wrote about new research from the University of Alberta...

No, she didn't. There was no research from any university in either her post or the newspaper article she referenced. All there was supporting her argument was the fact that local businesses have not lost business. But she neglected to mention that their town has doubled in size in eight years. Any business that can't survive when its market doubles deserves to fail.

Wal-mart sucks the vitality and potential for growth out of local businesses. Only small niches remain for them to occupy, and many get crowded out. By undercutting the price of locally-made goods, Wal-mart's arrival prevents small businesses from growing and increasing the local economy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick, quoted from the Globe and Mail article I referenced:

"Even so, the entry of Wal-Mart into a market pinches less than 10 per cent of local stores' business, says Paul McElhone, associate director of the retailing school at the University of Alberta's School of Business."


"According to one of the more comprehensive studies on the subject, retailers' sales rose faster in districts with Wal-Mart stores - an average of 27.2 per cent - compared with areas without the discounter, where sales grew 18.6 per cent. The research, done for the Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity at Ryerson University, was conducted from 1994 (when Wal-Mart arrived in Canada) to 1998."


Anonymous said...

Commending on Brendain's piece: once the economy recovers, gas prices will again be hing and the appeal of driving to a wal-mart will lessen.

So the question of what to do with some of these mega-boxes is a good one.

Maybe they'll be like the old brick-and-beam warehouses of yesteryear and become trendy loft condos or office space?

Maybe they can be put to educational use? Classrooms, maybe not for kids, but perhaps for continuing education for adults.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure re-use of these buildings has much value. I'd rather see them demolished and the areas put back on the street network (grid if it is one).

Patrick said...

It remains true that there was no research from the University of Alberta. A quote from a Business School professor is not subject to the rigor of an academic paper. Without analysis to back it up, the claim is useless.

And the Ryerson study is little value too. When Wal-Mart entered the Canadian market, two things certainly happened: It chose locations with very high growth potential, and new locations attracted customers to Wal-Mart from the vast surrounding area which had no Wal-Mart, pushing up growth rates further.

I do apologize that I missed the second study in my comment. But the newspaper article Wendy referenced is a poor justification for the claim that Wal-Mart does not hurt small business.

For more, see Richard Layman's post.

Brendan Crain said...

Nor was there a claim made that Wal-Mart didn't hurt small businesses in general; I was merely looking at big box chains as a somewhat inevitable part of a globalized economy. Kunstler-types would like to have us all build grass huts and live entirely off of what we grow on our own land, but that seems like an overindulgently apocalyptic worldview. Wal-Mart and its competitors (the most efficient ones, anyway) are going to be with us for the foreseeable future, so it makes more sense to look for ways to use them to our advantage. If they can force the kind of creative destruction, as Wendy put it, to diversify and possibly strengthen local economies, that's something we should focus on. If policy can somehow further enhance that side effect, all the better. The discussion needs to happen.

Now, somebody call the University of Alberta and tell them to do a study. ;-)

Patrick said...

I agree. They are definitely inevitable. Has anyone seen any good examples of adaptive reuse here?

Anonymous said...

Big box stores in urban environments are not new at all. Macy's and Rich's and numerous other department stores spread like wildfire across the US around the turn of the century. The distinction between them and the new big box stores is mostly in design and marketing. Old big box stores were located in the hearts of cities. Look at Macy's in New York, which is 6 stories tall, takes up an entire city block, and is within 3 blocks of 18 subway lines and Penn Station, which is the only Manhattan terminus for 2 massive commuter rail systems. Very very few people drive there, and this is a celebrated institution in New York.

Big box stores in suburbs are built on the periphery where they can only be reached by car. They sell things in bulk, requiring the use of a car to transport them. Readjust these two items and big box stores can definitely be integrated in to the urban fabric. In New York, there are a few great examples of this. Home Depot on 59th St & 3rd Avenue. Home Depot on 23rd St between 5th Ave & University Place. Kmart on Astor Place. I could go on.

Brendan Crain said...

Jacob: That's essentially the argument that Avent made in his post; that density is more important to the success and diversity of retail than the presence of chains. A dense area with heavy foot traffic can support more types of stores than an area that is sparsely populated and that requires a car for transportation.

That being said, how do we improve suburban boxscapes? They aren't going away any time soon, and while it's doubtful that they'll ever see Herald Square-level density, it would be prudent of us to figure out how to make these areas more dense; there is already commercial activity, so if we want to change the way that the suburbs are used, we should begin layering residential and institutional uses on top of existing commercial centers. There are plenty of boxscape'd areas in suburbs all over the world where several major retailers have exited, leaving giant, empty buildings surrounded by other, sometimes struggling but still active stores. That seems like a challenge to rethink the use, not tear everything down and start over...