Regulating Big Box Retailers

By Dom Nozzi

My thoughts about how to make Big Box retailers such as Wal-Mart behave themselves…

First, a list of reasons why Big Box retail (such as the Wal-Mart Supercenter) is deadly for communities and should be prevented from ever being allowed in a community.

1. Big Box retailers do not create an improved retail environment for a community or result in a net increase in jobs. Instead, they tend to cannibalize existing, in-town retail sales and in-town (often locally-owned) jobs. This is true at both the local level and the regional level. No net increase in retail sales or jobs. Just a geographic shifting from existing businesses to the Big Box retailer.

2. Big Box retailers drain dollars from a community. Instead of cycling those dollars within the community, Big Box steadily impoverishes the community by forever removing wealth from the community and pouring it into the bank accounts of out-of-town executives which have no allegiance to our community — nor any care for our welfare (since they don’t live here).

3. Big Box retailers promote extreme levels of car dependency for those who live in the region — which is a deadly, downwardly spiraling trend.

Excessive car dependency destroys community quality of life, significantly harms community sustainability, increases our dependence on oil, outside corporations, and foreign nations, bankrupts households and local & state governments, wipes out our downtown, transforms us into an “anywhere USA” kind of place that eliminates civic pride and a unique community character, and ruins our natural areas.

Big Box retailers powerfully promote car dependence by being placed in locations (and have site design) which make it impossible to travel to the store without a car. As a result, an increasing proportion of community residents must make an increasing number of trips by car (thereby increasing car dependency).

In part, this increased car dependency is caused by the fact that the Big Box wipes out in-town businesses that were accessible by means other than the car.

4. Big Box retailers, by wiping out local businesses, reduces consumer choice in products, since increasingly, the only products available are those that are sold by the Big Box.300px-Wal-Mart_in_Madison_Heights

5. By being so excessively car-dependent and designed to serve a regional “consumer-shed” of motorists from up to 10 miles away, Big Box retailers enable a sprawl lifestyle. That is, life becomes more feasible, and therefore BREEDS more sprawl households because sprawl is now more attractive.

 How can Big Box retail be prevented from locating in a community?

1. Keep your roads small and human-scaled, not Big Box scaled. Do not modify 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,” 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 this 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 opportunity by building Big Box throughout the nation. With small roads, Big Box retail is impossible. With large roads, Big Box is inevitable. 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 monster roads and interstates.

2. Enact a size limit for the retail square footage allowed in your community. Many cities have created a maximum retail floor area allowed in their community. Usually, this maximum is applied in a more walkable location such as a town center. A maximum size is more legally defensible when it is applied to a location in the community where walkability is the community objective. A place, in other words, where excessive car travel is detrimental to the objectives of the community.

What strategies are NOT effective in stopping Big Box?

1. Environmental regulations. They tend to be very weak 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 trivial when it comes to the problems that Big Box brings to a community. And again, they are easy to provide for a well-heeled developer.

3. Restrictive building design requirements. Again, these are minor window dressing items that are trivial in the overall picture. The problem with Big Box is not that the Box is ugly. Granted, the typical, formulaic Big Box building is not pleasant to look at, but on a list of 100 problems that a Big Box inflicts on a community, ugliness is about #99. And well-heeled developers will often provide aesthetic improvements if push comes to shove.

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 they “promote sweat shops in Mexico” are too abstract and complex for the sound-bite conditions of a public meeting.

5. Requiring the Big Box to have huge, multi-turn lane intersections or huge, multi-lane roads to serve them and avoid “gridlock congestion.”

Several problems here: 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.

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 secretly 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 playing right into the hands of the Big Box. Fourth, in urban areas, traffic congestion is our friend. It promotes many things a healthy community desires: infill development, less single-occupant vehicle travel, higher residential densities, more mixed use development, lower regional air pollution and fuel consumption, taller 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. The Big Box must be required to be “mixed use.” That is, high-density residences should be incorporated on site and adjacent to the site. The site should 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 (open-air “lifestyle” center shopping malls are becoming quite popular throughout the US these days).

2. 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. 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. 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 store and the roads that serve it.

4. If #1 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 near future when it abandons the site (usually to build something even bigger somewhere else).

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

Big Box retail will be unable to survive the coming big increases in the cost of energy and the cost of enlarging roads. They are therefore a short-term phenomenon. It behooves communities to prepare for this by either requiring the Big Box to be designed for its re-use as something else in the future, or to prevent the Big Box all together.

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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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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1 Comment

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

One response to “Regulating Big Box Retailers

  1. Simple solution. Limit road size, require all businesses that do want to locate to require bike parking, walking and a funding requirement for local transit of a substantial and reasonable amount. Require sidewalks throughout the parking lot that is allowed to enable easy walking between parked cars so people aren’t forced into the car gutters between parking areas.

    The list of things to push upon them is long…

    Then of course the easiest ways to get rid of big box stores is to create livable spaces, neighborhoods and mixed modes of transportation. They just don’t bode well then and often just end up being a new department store then – which is easily managed as a human friendly establishment versus a mega parking lot car happy place.

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