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Shoe Warehouse Stumbles Towards Sustainability

Here's one for the irony hall of fame: the new distribution center of one of the world's largest shoe companies is located in one of the most un-walkable places in California. 

I mean to rib Skechers USA Inc. and its warehouse in Moreno Valley only lightly. No one expects to walk to an industrial or logistics facility the way they would to an office building or corner grocery store. 

Progressive planners can only hope that all those shoes land on worthy sidewalks after they're sold. Nonetheless, the Skechers distribution center has captured attention, not only because it's a real live building (we remember real estate development, don't we?) in one of the foreclosure capitals of the country but also because it touts its "green" credentials to a fare-thee-well.

As the second- or third-largest warehouse in the state, it seems to hold as many superlatives as it does shoes. Most notably, this biggest of the big boxes claims to be the largest LEED-certified building in the United States.

We usually don't talk about sprawl in discrete terms. Sprawl is a totality of developments. Yet the Sketchers building itself is sprawl. The structure spans 1.8 million square feet, mostly on one level. That alone is the size of a small tract housing development. The Los Angeles Times notes that it would take a half-minute to drive the 2,900-foot length of the building – at 60 miles per hour. The "short" end of the building is 700 feet, meaning that it covers the area of 40 football fields. This is ironic, since Skechers isn't known for making cleats. 

Up to 20,000 shoes of other types will pass through its conveyer belts and out the 270 truck bays every hour. 

Not bad for a little cobbling outfit from Manhattan Beach.  

Somehow, this behemoth racked up enough points to gain basic LEED certification. Environmentally friendly features reportedly include solar power (makes sense with a roof that big), natural ventilation (good luck in the Moreno Valley summer), and sensors that turn off lights in vacant parts of the building (duh). These features will reportedly save Skechers $10 million in energy costs per year compared to a conventional building. That's nice for Skechers, but it's not clear why the company deserves a plaque for being sensible. 

Beyond the building's walls, its location flouts every principle of smart growth. Moreno Valley is the classic outer suburb. It has wide streets, strip malls, and tract housing, and it's far from any traditional urban center. This means that 500 or so daily workers will be driving there by all sorts of routes, none of which is likely to involve a bus, bike, or, indeed, even those weird convex shoes that claim to make your butt look firmer. 

So, on the regional scale, the place embodies, at best, business-as-usual freeway urbanism. 

If laws like Senate Bill 375 were retroactive, we'd scoop up all the residents of Moreno Valley and deposit them in condo towers in Downtown Los Angeles. Then we'd let wildflowers take over. Then you'd build warehouses…. Well, I don't know where you'd build them. Probably close to freeways, rail spurs, and other infrastructure. 

But just as you can't un-ring a bell, you can't un-leap a frog. Moreno Valley's leapfrog development is here to stay, and the freeways and heavy rail lines leading to it (as well as the ports of L.A. and Long Beach) are too. That's why—and I can't believe I'm saying this—the Skechers warehouse might be almost all right. 

Regardless of what LEED says, the greenest component of the warehouse may lie in what it isn't: it's not six other warehouses. 

That's the number of facilities Skechers currently uses, and they're spread all over the Inland Empire. So if all those truck trips to one location in Moreno Valley scare you, imagine the aggregate impact of the current system. There's no reason to believe that workers are driving any less to get to those jobs than they will once they're redeployed to the new place. 

There's one other scale worth considering: the global scale. Ultimately, Skechers' LEED-plated building is just one stop on the long conveyor belt connecting the sweatshops of China to the closets of America. Those shoes grace California's shores because we have the port infrastructure and inland connections. But the environmental impact of what happens here pales in comparison to what's happening in Guangzhou or Shenzen. Out of sight, out of mind. 

So let's tally the votes. Building: OK. Location: bad. Economics of scale: good. Global impact: unclear, but probably unavoidable no matter what it is. 

There is, of course, one more element to consider: the output. Skechers isn't a tire company or chemical plant. If, after they cross an ocean, slide through a conveyer belt, and cross a continent, Skechers' products get consumers to lace up, take a stroll, and tighten their glutes, then it might be pretty green after all. 

They just probably won't be doing much of it in Moreno Valley. 

--Josh Stephens