Why All the Anxiety about Big Boxes?
There are probably no two words that can get a planning commission or community more worked up than these: big box. Any self-respecting planner would agree that the Wal-Marts and the Home Depots of the world present a challenge to good suburban design, but one still has to wonder why so many collective hands are wringing.
After all, Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward built big boxes all over America during the early 1960s and were received with open arms. Big-name department stores have long been that size, and most commonly in a two to three-story format. Heck, enclosed malls are nothing more that oblong boxes pushing a million square feet and larger. Simply put, big boxes — defined here as stores of at least 100,000 square feet surrounded by parking — are nothing new.
So what's all the ruckus? Why has "big box" become a catch phrase for all that people want to reject about commercial development? Hasn't the term, like so many from the planners' lexicon, been subverted into meaningless jargon? According to Al Gobar, a long-time commercial real estate consultant, "the semantics of retailing is terribly imprecise." Still, when it comes to big boxes, many people will say that "they know one when they see one."
Precision aside, there are a handful of retailers who have become pegged with the moniker, creating a new public relations obstacle for their developers. They include Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's, and Target. And opposition presents itself from a variety of sources.
In the early 1990s, when Wal-Mart made its first major push into California, it was labor that threw down the gauntlet. The concern was not urban design, but jobs. Up and down the state, retail clerk unionists packed local hearings and succeeding in blocking a number of Wal-Mart proposals. Joined at their side were small business owners. Fearful of losing sales into the new megastores, working people, shop owners, and downtown advocates closed ranks to fight big boxers — especially when they announced plans to develop a "hypermarket" that would sell groceries along with dry goods. (See CP&DR, January 2001.)
In some communities, the fight took on an element of elitism. Gobar recalls that wealthy neighborhoods east of the struggling Mall of Orange in Orange County vigorously fought Wal-Mart from becoming a tenant three years ago. The attitude: we don't need that kind of store. Similar sentiment has been cited for the failure of a Target proposal for downtown Santa Monica. Target was hoping its urban prototype, with neotraditional format and detailing, would combine with its hip image to assuage decision-makers in Los Angeles's toughest developer environment. But the project was killed 5-2 earlier this year.
In the end, design details are the primary focus of planners and community groups. Earlier this year, Ventura residents rose in strong opposition to a Home Depot proposed as part of an infill shopping center development at a shuttered drive-in theater site. Opposition centered on the incompatibility of 24-hour loading and other operational necessities with adjacent residential uses. Under intense pressure, the Ventura City Council rejected that version of the center. But a revised plan that replaced Home Depot with Kohl's — a department store little known in California — flew through approvals with minimal remnant resistance.
In the case of San Luis Obispo, big box developments — and opposition to them — is trickier. After a two-year review process of the "Marketplace" project on an area that the general plan designated for retail use, the project was denied. Tenants would have included both Target and Lowe's. Key issues were the loss of a scenic agricultural parcel and overall concern that large retailers were not necessary in the small city. But in San Luis Obispo's unique land use environment, project applicants have another option and have acted on it. They are currently before the County because the land has not yet been annexed.
Interestingly, San Luis Obispo has not approved an ordinance that limits the amount of big box floor area devoted to "non taxable" merchandise. Such restrictions have received quick approval in other Central Coast communities, such as Santa Mara and Paso Robles. The ordinances, backed by grocery clerk unions, are designed to prohibit Wal-Mart's hypermarket prototype.
In Mountain View, the issues surrounding big boxes have been distilled a bit. In July, Home Depot withdrew its application when it determined the application for special consideration at a site with a 50,000 square-foot-per-tenant cap would not be approved. The City has imposed the cap as part of precise plan for the site, which held a shuttered free-standing Emporium store. The special site standards were adopted after the city studied the usual land use compatibility issues and urban design concerns.
"Community standards have evolved in the last five years," said Principal Planner Mike Percy. And though there is scrutiny, there is no blanket opposition to big boxes in Mountain View. "We allow big boxes in our industrial zones. In fact, we helped attract a Costco store there with a temporary waiver of sales tax. There was no opposition at all."
The Mountain View example illustrates that there may be a rational way to work with big boxes: Place them away from neighborhoods. Traffic, loading dock noise, and even design issues are not as sensitive in the industrial areas, Percy noted.
The big box debate brings a few truths forward: retail developers will continue to apply for projects for which they perceive demand — regardless of current planning theories and growing community involvement in land use decisions. And because most general plans and zoning ordinances do not distinguish big boxes, most developers look for projects to go to retail-designated sites. Second, big box developers will be more successful when they bend to community demands and accept that everything is on the table: total size, mix of product allowed, and design details. Finally, as Mountain View suggests, big boxers may have an easier time if they look at industrial and light-industrial zones — to begin thinking, as it were, outside the box.