Friday, January 16, 2009

Big Boxes Made of Ticky Tacky

Empty Wall Mart storefront
On the day the Star Tribune's bankruptcy filing was announced, the paper's op-ed page was graced with a thoughtful piece by Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Titled Big, Empty Boxes, the article reminds us of the increasing number of derelict big-box retail buildings.

Mitchell writes, "Within a few months, more than one-eighth of the country's retail space will be sitting vacant, according to some estimates." This vacancy rate is not only a result of the recent economic downturn, however, so no one should act surprised:

Since the early 1990s, the pace of retail development has far outstripped growth in spending. Between 1990 and 2005, the amount of store space in the United States doubled, ballooning from 19 to 38 square feet per person. Meanwhile, real consumer spending rose just 14 percent.
Empty white inside of a CompUSA store
By now, everyone is probably familiar with towns where one big box has closed only to have another from the same chain open on the other side of town or in a nearby burg. I've seen one Barnes & Noble give way to another less than a mile away (the old one is still empty); more than one Walmart replaced by a Walmart Super Center; and a list of Targets replaced first by Target Greatland and now by Super Target.

Despite the apparent shock expressed by business and the media, Mitchell points out that they knew it was coming, because a big-name consulting company identified this bubble years before the recent economic slide began:
PricewaterhouseCoopers...deemed the United States vastly "overstored." In a 2003 report, the investment research firm declared that the "most overretailed country in the world hardly needs more shopping outlets of any kind."
Cracked asphalt sea with a Wall Mart store visible in the distance
Mitchell ends her article with a call for municipalities to remember all these empty big boxes and aging strip malls when the economy starts to pick up. Rather than allowing developers to pave even more undeveloped land -- and erect their trash buildings whose useful life is measured in years, not even decades -- they should insist on redeveloping the derelicts, and work for greater density while they're at it.

Cover of the book Big Box ReuseSee the website Big Box Reuse for some ways that empty stores are being reused around the country. Artist Julie Christensen has been documenting successful examples, and recently published a book by the same name. Sounds like it's worth picking up.

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