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Monday, April 28, 2008

Big Box - New Urbanism Style

Big box stores. You know, the large, free-standing, rectangular, generally single-floor structures built on a concrete slab. Many people hate these massive conglomerations of retail space and others love them. The formula has been standard for quite some time now. Build the box by a large freeway or shopping district and put 20 acres of parking around it. People will drive to the store. This formula is about to change. I doubt that big box stores are going away, but the way they do business will change. The last frontier for big box stores who have already conquered the suburbs and rural areas are city centers. Walmart, target, borders, home depot, and many others have redesigned their stores and strategy to meet this new market. These new retail locations blend in more with the urban environment and are almost always more than one story. They have trimmed down a bit too. Instead of the gigantic 200,000 sq. foot stores you will find medium box size stores from 60,000 to 100,000 sq feet. The storefronts are near the sidewalk and the parking is either underneath or in back.

While these stores can suit city centers, they can also serve new urbanism neighborhoods and communities. Companies who traditionally use big box stores realize that they need to change the architecture of their stores to match the surrounding community. This realization has come from numerous attempts of these companies trying to locate their stores in these communities only to get shot down by local residents. Walmart wanted to put a box in Kentlands, but the residents would not stand for it. Usually stores like Walmart would just go to a nearby plot of land or outside location to open the store and enjoy the same customer base. In my opinion, Walmart is already employing this activity with two of their stores being built within a short driving distance of Daybreak. However, Kennecott has a strangle hold on all of the land on the West Bench. It will be up to them if they want a Walmart on their land. If big box stores want in on future developments on the West side of Salt Lake County they will have to play by Kennecott's rules. Now if we can only get Kennecott to stick to their guns.

Big box stores have already been mentioned by Kennecott in their plans for Daybreak. From what I understand these stores will be located in the main town center and not in the village centers. When these new stores are built what will they look like? Big box retailers have already opened alternative designs in other cities across the US. I have included a few pictures in this post that I have found on the web. Many of these stores, in addition to the structural features already mentioned, will have apartment lofts above the main store front. This will further the mixed-use tradition of new urban communities. The overall design of many of these stores can make them as aesthetically pleasing as their previous stores are ugly. Well, maybe not that pleasing, but close. New Urban News did a piece on how big box stores can blend in to a new urban community. They found that it can be done by wrapping the outside of the box with new urban structures. This has been done in Belmar Colorado by Continuum Partners.

The idea is to simply hide the gray wall exterior of the big box stores by surrounding them with buildings that are architecturally appealing. These can be mom & pop shops, restaurants, town homes and condos, etc. There are difficult problems to over come with logistics, code, and space utilization, but these "wrapper buildings" stand on their own economically. People want them and developers rent or sell them at a profit. The buildings are so small that they can usually only facilitate mom & pop stores instead of national chain stores.

In an earlier post I urged you to buy local and not shop at big box stores. I stand by this. If you have a local independent merchant support them first. However, big box stores are not going to go away. The efficiency with which they operate delivers the prices that customers want. The market will force them to adapt, but they will still be here for years to come. If they are going to be a part of our community, then they had better fit in with the community.

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