Big Box Retail: What Can Be Done About Them?

by Dom Nozzi

Can Big Box be effectively stopped?

As I have noted elsewhere, large-format retailers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Costco (colloquially known as “Big Box Retail”) create enormous retail, transportation, sprawl, and economic problems. It is also well-known that they strongly contribute to an “Anywhere USA” ambience that undercuts the unique character of communities.

What can be done to stop Big Box Retail?

To stop Big Box encroachment into the community, the community must, above all else, cut off the lifeline that makes Big Box retailing possible. The key to discouraging Big Box is, like so many other community problems, transportation-related.

Effectively discouraging Big Box means not modifying nearby roads to add road capacity (for example, by adding turn lanes at intersections or adding travel lanes). If nearby intersections or roads (or interstates) are already “overweight,” an effective strategy is to put them on a diet by removing turn lanes and travel lanes. Admittedly, this is a very long-term strategy. But the terrible reality is that this nation has spent several decades spending trillions of public dollars to build huge interstate highways and huge local arterial roads. The predictable result of that enormous public subsidy is that it gave birth to a nation-wide epidemic of Big Box retailers. Such retailers can only exist if they are able to gain access to an enormous, regional consumer-shed of customers (customers from multiple counties). The big roads and interstates have created that opportunity, and Big Box executives are taking advantage of this prospect by building Big Box throughout the nation. In essence, we are now paying for the sins of our forefathers and foremothers, who chose to squander ungodly sums of public dollars to widen roads, and therefore indirectly and heavily subsidizing Big Box retailing. It is naive to think we can stop Big Box until we start reversing the blunder of building these gigantic roads and interstates.

With modest roads, Big Box is impossible. With large roads, Big Box is inevitable.

What strategies are NOT effective in stopping Big Box?

Many communities employ Big Box discouragement strategies that are ineffective. Let us review some of these.

1. Environmental regulations. Such regulations tend to be very weak; overly subjective; difficult to measure, monitor or enforce; and very easy to evade—particularly by a well-heeled developer.

2. Generous landscaping and open space requirements. These are minor “window dressing” items that are nearly irrelevant when it comes to the problems that Big Box brings to a community. And again, the substantial financial wealth of the Big Box developer makes such expenditures painless.

3. Restrictive building design requirements. Again, these are minor window dressing items that are inconsequential in the overall picture. The problem with Big Box is not that the Box is ugly. Granted, the Big Box building is an awful, pathetic form of architecture, but on a list of 100 evils that a Big Box delivers to a community, ugliness is near the bottom. And wealthy Big Box developers will often not even blink an eye to pay the pocket change needed to make aesthetic improvements if push comes to shove. This is not to say that a community which finds it must accept a Big Box should be silent on the question of how the Big Box building is designed. If a Big Box retailer must be allowed, it is important that the community (if it has any semblance of self-respect and civic pride) insist that the Big Box be designed to be compatible with the character of the community.

Note, however, that the elected officials need to have a great deal of political backbone (and design wisdom) for this building design strategy to work. Design regulations for Big Box require that you can trust your elected folks not to cave in to “moral high ground” arguments (such as “this Wal-Mart will provide jobs for poor people”). If you cannot trust your elected officials to stand up to such moralizing, it may be best to take the route of prohibiting Big Box from your community (by setting a maximum retail building size of, say, 75,000 square feet) instead of requiring that they abide by design requirements. A more feasible approach than community-wide prohibition is to simply prohibit them in parts of your community that are intended to remain (or become) compact, walkable and mixed use—such as your town center. Areas where they could be allowed are those places intended to provide for the auto-oriented, suburban lifestyle. The downside to this approach, of course, is that the harmful aspects of the Big Box are far-reaching, and its tentacles can easily damage the smaller, locally-owned, more walkable portions of the community.

4. Appeal to the harm the Big Box will bring to “poor people.” In public meetings, the Big Box will always have the moral high ground when it comes to “poor people.” After all, don’t they provide “Low, Low Prices” that “help” poor people? Arguments about how the Big Box provides “excessively low-wage jobs with no health care” or how Big Box “promote sweat shops in Mexico” are too abstract and complex for the sound-bite conditions of a public meeting.

5. Request road “improvements” to avert congestion. As implied above, requiring the Big Box to provide huge, multi-turn lane intersections or huge, multi-lane roads to serve them and avoid “gridlock congestion” is a common mistake that plays into the hands of the Big Box. First, it is pocket change for Big Box to come up with the dollars to increase the size of nearby roads/intersections. Second, it is often the local or state government that ends up (further) subsidizing the Big Box by using public tax dollars to increase such road capacity (justified because Big Box “provides jobs/tax revenue”). Third, such big capacity roads enable Big Box. They must have such roads to be successful. It is therefore not a “punishment” to request they provide such roads. Indeed, I suspect that the Big Box often deliberately lets the perception arise that “nearby roads need to be enlarged to avoid congestion,” when all along, the Big Box was being coy and hoping that this “concession” would be “demanded” of them. The Big Box cannot exist without the Big Roads and Big Intersections. For the local government and its citizens to insist on such roads is precisely what the Big Box is hoping will be demanded. Fourth, in cities, traffic congestion is our friend. It promotes many things a healthy community desires: infill development, less car travel, higher residential densities, more mixed use development, lower regional air pollution and fuel consumption, multi-story buildings, less asphalt parking, healthier transit, healthier small (and locally-owned) business, and less suburban sprawl.

If Big Box cannot be stopped, how can they be made more palatable?

1. In almost all cases, there are polarizing, wide-ranging viewpoints on the part of elected officials and citizens of a community about what is to be done about Big Box. Some want to prohibit them, others want to go after them with aggressive design requirements. Still others don’t want to regulate them at all – fearing that to do so might chase away “desirable” retail development. Given these conditions, perhaps the most effective, politically viable strategy is to establish context (or location)-sensitive regulations. For example, the community may wish to prohibit them (with a square footage size cap) in its walkable, compact areas (such as in its town center). In suburbs, the community may want to allow Big Box, but establish design requirements for them. Near large highways, the community can perhaps acknowledge that such places are so car-oriented already (and so desirable to the Big Box) that there should be either very light regulation or no regulation at all for the Big Box. Using this context-sensitive approach can satisfy all viewpoints in a community.

2. At all costs, the Big Box must not be enabled by enlarging the road capacity near it (do not add additional turn lanes at intersections near it and do not add travel lanes on roads near it). If any road modifications are made, they should be to reduce such capacity.

3. Outside of outlying suburban and highway areas, the Big Box must not be enabled by allowing it to install an enormous asphalt parking lagoon to attract tens of thousands of car-dependent shoppers. In or near the town center, the parking must be kept modest in size (no more than 1 space per 500 feet of floor area) and must not be allowed between the front of the store and the roads that serve it. Instead, the front of the building must be pulled up to the streetside sidewalk, as is done traditionally in walkable town centers.

4. The Big Box must not be allowed to select a site that is environmentally significant.

5. It may be important to insist that the Big Box be required to be “mixed use” – particularly when it is in a core area of the community. That is, high-density residences should be incorporated on site and adjacent to the site. In or near a town center, the site shall be developed to contain a gridded street network with narrow streets, on-street parking, multi-story buildings, street connections to adjacent properties, and compact building arrangement so that it mimics a walkable town center (an open-air “lifestyle” center shopping mall is becoming quite popular throughout the US these days). Such design also ensures that the Big Box site can be adaptively re-used as something else (hopefully more walkable and sustainable) once the inevitable day comes when the Big Box is abandoned.

6. If #5 above is not achieved, the Big Box must be required to sign a legally-binding agreement that it will be financially responsible for demolishing the structures it builds on the site and restoring the site to its original condition after the inevitable day in the not-too-distant future when it abandons the site (usually to build something even bigger somewhere else).

In any event, the community needs to make a decision with a prospective Big Box: Will we allow the Box to treat us like a doormat and degrade what is unique, healthy and lovable about our community? Or will we insist that the Big Box only come to our community on OUR terms?


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.


Or email me at: dom[AT]

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Filed under Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

4 responses to “Big Box Retail: What Can Be Done About Them?

  1. yason

    I think I’m getting more and more fixed on the view that these things such as big box retail will roll on as long as they can (there are several factors pointing back into a vicious circle) until the price of oil rises too high, or other political and social turbulence occurs due to reduced availability of oil at negligible prices and the big box model becomes unsustainable. However, many many other things will have become unsustainable as well at that point so I’m not sure, either, if there will be many people cheering the end of big box retail.

    After all, the whole Western modern economy is fueled by oil and as we’re pumping out millions of years of solar energy within a time frame of just a couple of centuries, it’s really difficult to fight or stop such a huge influx as long as it’s ongoing. It’s always an uphill battle with lots of little victories. But when things change, it’s the walkable way of life that survives because it’s the only one that works in the end.

    It just makes me sigh to think of that if we, as humans, are given such an inducing opportunity as oil has been since the 19th century, the best we can do (and will end up doing) with it is to build endless miles of huge roads connecting huge suburbs, huge offices and huge factories and put people sitting in tiny metal boxes, driving back and forth there.

  2. @yason
    That is the reason why we should all be championing the concepts of the new urbanism model of development. If we focus on mixed use development projects and sustainability or even green urbanism, we are keeping people closer to home, reducing dependence on oil for transportation and helping to build a sense of place. That is what this world needs.

  3. Kent

    Where is that Toys R Us? thanks

  4. Unfortunately, I do not recall. I believe the image is from my colleague, Dan Burden.

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