Historic Preservation Month, Big Box Stores, Preservation Tools

{Author’s note: an earlier version of this post has been altered for the purpose of education and advocacy rather than partial rant. This method – as in, not a rant – of writing is much more effective for the mission of historic preservation; I apologize for straying from the PiP mission on such important issues. I hope that the information in this post will encourage you to consider historic significance of our built environment and how to engage your community members along with how to appreciate and employ preservation regulations where appropriate.}


May is National Historic Preservation Month. This year, four of the largest big box chain stores – Walmart, Target, Kmart and Kohls, turn 50 years old. These chain stores have changed the face and culture of America, so Preservation Month seems like a fitting time to discuss some related issues, including: (1) big boxes reaching 50 years in age and potential significance; (2) big box and chain store sprawl; and (3) the power that citizens have through historic preservation regulations to fight sprawl and poor development.

{This is a long post, but such length is necessary for this discussion.}

From the National Trust Main Street Center’s Facebook page. Click to visit.

First: Big box stores? 50 years old? Wouldn’t that mean they are old enough to be evaluated for significance and eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places? Technically, yes. Don’t get too excited, however. While the original stores may be eligible for evaluation, this does not mean that every single big box chain store is or will ever be historic. You will recall that a determination of historic significance is based on an evaluation of the seven aspects of integrity as related to criteria of eligibility. In other words, these original stores would need to have a high level of integrity in order to be historically significant. So, it is my opinion that yes, the flagship stores of chains that changed America, might be historically significant. Why? Because significant resources are not limited to the rose-colored-glasses-view standard. As for the hundreds and thousands of subsequent chain stores? Probably not. What do you think?

Ironically, the first Walmart store – Waltons five and dime – now serves as the Walmart visitors’ center in Bentonville, AK, which is a historic district.

Related to big box stores, though different, are strip malls. I’ve recently come across blogs, such as Pleasant Family Shopping, that are dedicated to preserving the history of strip malls. An interesting concept, yes? America would not be the same without strip malls, for better or worse. I’d venture to say that the history of the strip mall is more important than the physical building itself. Do you agree? When is history more important than the actual place? Thus, those thousands of big box retail giant buildings are not significant, even though the story is. In the case of defunct and empty box stores, the argument for reuse is best left in the environmental and sustainability playing field.

Second: Big boxes exist and will continue to exist for a while; but, let’s hope that the National Trust Main Street Center analysts are correct and main street businesses will find resurgence in the next 50 (or fewer!) years. Small business ownership, local economics and downtown shopping are gaining popularity in conversation and practice. Unfortunately, big boxes and sprawl continue to invade and threaten our towns, villages and cities across the country, whether you live in Vermont, Montana, California, Iowa — anywhere.

The Vermont Forum on Sprawl defines sprawl as, “Dispersed development outside of compact urban and village centers along highways and in rural countryside.” If you live in an area where village and town centers remain intact and distinguishable from sprawl and strip malls, then consider yourself lucky. Many people are not so lucky. Read more sprawl definitions on the Sprawl Guide from Planners Web.

Sprawl includes big box retailers such as the big four mentioned above who turn 50 this year; drugstores such as RiteAid, Kinney Drugs, Walgreens, CVS, Duane-Reade, etc.; other large retailers such as Best Buy, Toys R US, Dicks Sporting Goods, Staples, Dollar General, Family Dollar, etc. Currently, dollar stores are threatening Vermont left and right. Why are these stores contributing to sprawl? Simply put, most insist on constructing their own building and parking lot on undeveloped land, outside of village centers, targeting areas with weak zoning controls. Seldom will you see a box chain store nicely fitting into a historic downtown or village center.

The thing about sprawl is that anyone who has studied community development, land use planning, historic preservation, local economics or any related field, can automatically tell you that sprawl causes negative impacts to historic downtowns and local businesses. There is no question about it. And it is completely avoidable. So why are we still fighting the same issues? Do a quick web search; you will find countless studies, such as this one from the Sierra Club or this listing of reports from Planners Web.

Third: How can we prevent sprawl and big box development that destroys the vitality and vibrance of our historic downtowns, those same downtowns where Main Street is starting to find its resurgence? You and I can shop in local businesses religiously (as we should!), but there is absolutely no guarantee that development pressures do not exist or will not arise. Big box stores and outside-of-downtown development does not come because of a lack of downtown. It comes because a developer wants to, some people agree and local politicians agree.

Sprawl and poorly planned development near a historic district will negatively effect the downtown business district. In fact, a big box store/super center may eventually kill the local businesses and the local (as in locally owned, small business) economy. And then what? People are forced to shop at that store. Downtown is abandoned. The buildings are neglected. Quality of life and sense of place decrease. The historic business district is dead, and yet another, rare, formerly successful downtown is no more. Successful, sustainable downtowns are so critical to our economy and quality of life, and big box development can ruin everyone’s hard work in a matter of months or years.

How can you fix this? How can you preserve your town’s vitality?

The answer you will hear time and time again – because it’s true – is to insure that your town/city has proper zoning regulations. In brief, zoning classifies parcels into use categories (commercial, residential, industrial, etc.). Zoning can also dictate the size of a commercial establishment, which is often what precludes big box development out of a particular area. Unfortunately, many municipalities do not have updated zoning (out of date zoning can be just as bad as no zoning) because it has never been an issue or because people are misguided and are not in favor of zoning. How do you work around this? You have to start at the local level. Talk to your local officials. Use the Big Box Tool Kit website as a reference: it is one of the best of its kind.

The greatest changes happen at the local level.

Aside from local policies, our country is shaped by state and federal policies and laws, which include historic preservation regulations, particularly Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, both 1966 (see HP Basics No.2 for overview). The nuances of each vary, but it is important to know that state and federally funded projects must consider the project effects to historic resources and avoid, minimize or mitigate those effects. Both protect historic properties.

In addition to knowing the function of the laws, it is important to know that, as member of the public, you can be involved in the process of Section 106 and Section 4(f) through public and community meetings.  The Citizen’s Guide to Section 106 produced by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation is incredibly helpful and is easy to understand if you are unfamiliar with such regulatory processes (see page 12 for public involvement).

Working with Federal Agencies – page 12 of the Citizen’s Guide to Section 106, produced by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation. Click for original source.

Section 4(f) does not have quite the reader-friendly print edition as Section 106; however, the interactive Section 4(f) training website, produced by the Maryland Department of Transportation, is user and reader friendly (with only the necessary amount of regulatory speak). Enjoy both!

The federal regulations protect historic properties. In other words, proper building infill, appropriate building renovation, sensitive roadway improvements — all federally funded projects in, through or adjacent to a historic property are required to be reviewed by qualified professionals, in order to prevent adverse effects. These laws are effective.

Do you disagree with a project or an aspect of the project? How can Section 106 and Section 4(f) apply to you? Here are some important sections of the laws that relate to determining effects of a project:

As part of Section 106 regulations, step one is to identify the Area of Potential Effect, which is defined as: “The geographic area or areas within which an undertaking may directly or indirectly cause alterations in the character or use of historic properties, if any such properties exist. The area of potential effects is influenced by the scale and nature of an undertaking and may be different for different kinds of effects caused by the undertaking” (36 CFR 800.16(d)).  “Effect means alteration to the characteristics of a historic property qualifying it for inclusion in or eligibility for the National Register” (36 CFR 800.16i). An “adverse effect” has a longer definition, but “Adverse effects may include reasonably foreseeable effects caused by the undertaking that may occur later in time, be farther removed in distance or be cumulative” (36 CFR 800.5(1)).

Section 4(f) is more complicated, but essentially says that a transportation project cannot “use” a historic resource (or recreation resource, waterfowl or wildlife refuge) if there is a feasible and prudent alternative to doing so. An intriguing “use” under Section 4(f) is constructive use, meaning, “A constructive use occurs when the transportation project does not incorporate land from a Section 4(f) property, but the project’s proximity impacts are so severe that the protected activities, features, or attributes that qualify the property for protection under Section 4(f) are substantially impaired. Substantial impairment occurs only when the protected activities, features, or attributes of the property are substantially diminished” (23 CFR 774.15(a)).

When my UVM classmates and I first learned about 4(f), we thought it was the golden ticket. Proximity impacts?! That sounds like everything, we said. Only not. We learned that what we may consider an adverse effect in our academic bubble, was not necessarily articulated in the law. In other words, sprawl didn’t exactly apply for the application of this law. Every law has its place. Think of it as checks and balances; we need laws to work together, no matter what field or sector. Obviously, right? After all, no one resource is in a vacuum. Everything is interconnected. Are you with me?

So, for issues such as sprawl; let’s assume that it is clear that there are no historic properties in the project area. Therefore, no historic properties are affected, adverse or otherwise, under application of the laws. How will you protect your community from sprawl now? Where would protection against strip malls and poor development apply? In such a case where historic preservation laws do not reach, you need to employ other regulations. After all, one set of laws cannot solve everything, no matter how badly some of us might want them to.

The best protection of the economics of your community and the health of your community are local ordinances and local zoning (with concerned, dedicated citizens working in front of and behind these regulations). See how important this is?! Combined with historic preservation regulations, zoning and planning will preserve your historic properties and districts, which will preserve the economic sustainability and health of your community.

Can you make the argument that sprawl = negative impacts to your community? Of course. Learn how to prevent the negative impacts of sprawl. The answer: zoning, planning, community involvement, education! Our country, our states, our municipalities follow regulations and laws. It is important to understand the full strength and applicability of our laws to protect historic resources (and other resources). Where one set of laws does not meet your needs or does not apply to your concerns, you have to go other routes. Be an informed citizen and you will have a better quality of life and sense of place.

What do you think, about any or all of this?


14 thoughts on “Historic Preservation Month, Big Box Stores, Preservation Tools

  1. Landau says:

    I was wondering, what was going on in the US 50 years ago that prompted the development of all these big box chains? Would fixing/undoing that help the situation now?

    • Kaitlin says:

      Always a good question. I don’t know the economics of it, other than the fact that the economy was doing very well and it was the age of post-war, disposable income. Factors such as technological innovation, construction of the interstates, the quick growth of suburbia tied with the desire to leave city life… these all contributed to then-American dream, which encouraged development. But, perhaps a study of the marketing factors at the time would be interesting?

  2. readerareadevelopment says:

    Great post! You can prevent it by regulating single-use zoning and by creating complete streets as opposed to roads to a destination. It was a perfect storm of conditions after WWII that led to the creation of these big box stores of today. They started off a lot smaller, but then once they suffocated the local businesses they were able to grow into bigger stores.

    I live in exactly the place you describe… I chose to move here at my own will which could be considered crazy, but the reason was to use it as a ground zero for redevelopment. I posted on what happened to my town here:


    My bet is on Main Street since they are all at the core of the cities. As retail trends indicate people will get sick of the big box, just like they got sick of malls, and like they got sick of mom and pops.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Thank you! I wish you the best of luck with your redevelopment. And I hope you’re right … that we circle back to Main Street. It’s a good point. Even if we compare malls from 1970 to 2010 — now they are open-air malls with courtyards and aesthetically pleasing facades. Even in the malls, some companies choose to make their stores look like individual buildings, as if you were strolling down the street. Optimism, I love it! Thanks.

  3. Jim says:

    I grew up in the 1970s in a real city neighborhood — one with a grocery, two pharmacies, a dry cleaner, a milk store, a five-and-dime (with a gleaming stainless steel soda fountain!), a library branch, several restaurants and bars, service stations, a couple doctor’s and dentist’s offices, and an elementary and high school, all within walking distance (sometimes a longish walk, but a walk nonetheless).

    My family did most of its shopping at a shopping center (that’s Midwestern for “strip mall”) a couple miles south, at what was then the city limits.

    The reality was that the strip mall had more to offer at better prices, and we could park our car once and do the entire week’s shopping in a couple hours. That’s a compelling value proposition, and it remains so.

    Today, my childhood neighborhood lacks almost all of what it had 35 years ago. The library branch and the schools are still there, but almost everything else is gone. I feel sad about it because of memories lost — no more chocolate malts at the soda fountain, no more running down to the corner for a gallon of milk, no more riding my bike the six blocks to the dentist for my checkups. I wish I could have some of that back. But I can’t imagine not doing most of my routine shopping at Meijer (a slightly upscale Midwestern Wal-Mart) because of price and convenience.

    Because it’s what I can afford, I now live in what used to be Indianapolis’s suburbs before the city annexed it all 42 years ago. It’s all strip malls and four-lane roads out here. I would love to move into one of the few real neighborhoods left here, and perhaps I will one day. The one nearest me features a few great local merchants who have persisted primarily by moving upscale. There’s an absolutely fantastic butcher shop there, for example, and they now also sell higher-end meats and attract clientele from far, far beyond their neighborhood. Perhaps this is how local businesses can survive, as there’s no margin in such madness for Meijer.

    Jeez, sorry this was so long — now I think I’m going to have to reuse this comment as a post on my own blog!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Jim, I understand that typically box stores are cheaper than other stores, but I would argue that it is partially perceived as cheaper and not necessarily true. I can attest to that based on the local grocery store in my village and the big box grocery store outside of the village.

      When we have a discussion of suburbia v. villages, and suburbia is the majority of land use, then strip malls/shopping centers are often the norm. You say that you grew up in a real city neighborhood, but still had to do shopping outside of your neighborhood at a shopping center? Do you mean grocery shopping? Household shopping? Clothing? Wouldn’t some of those things be necessary in a real city neighborhood? How do you distinguish for where you grew up?

      As you say, the niche market is often what fills the void of local business. Perhaps that will change. I’ll swing by your blog. Thanks for sharing.

      • Jim says:

        My parents chose to shop at the suburban strip mall because of price and convenience. We could have done all of our weekly/routine shopping in the neighborhood if we wanted to; it would have cost more and been less convenient. It was less convenient because either we would have needed to drive the car from shop to shop to do it weekly (to carry everything) or we would have needed to shop daily (on foot).

        Our neighborhood didn’t offer shopping for clothing, so we had to do that elsewhere. It did offer a furniture/appliance store (actually, slightly outside the neighborhood, but still darned close), and we did buy from them.

  4. Northern New England Villages says:

    In many respects, the growth of big-box stores was born of necessity to achieve economies-of-scale. Many see zoning as the salvation from big-boxes, but fail to note that zoning itself helped spawn the need for big-box stores by segregating land uses. This eliminated the corner mom-and-pop retail stores since commercial activities could no longer intermingle with residential uses.

    Combine this with a growing federal, state, and local regulatory burden that requires permit after permit (environmental, traffic, disability, etc.), then only the largest stores can afford to wind their way through the regulatory labyrinth–especially in retail with notoriously low profit margins. So, economically, the only way to survive is through volume which means larger stores and parking (for quick accessibility) thereby condemning smaller main street stores to economic obsolescence.

    Keep in mind that the Constitutional validity of zoning was not affirmed until 1926, so zoning is relatively new–when compared to the fact that many of our most cherished main streets were built before then. As such, this begs the question . . . if zoning did not create these main streets can zoning save them? Perhaps the answer is to relax the strict segregation of land uses and let folks rebuild the multi-use neighborhoods of old as Jane Jacobs so famously illustrated.

    • Kaitlin says:

      “If zoning did not create these main streets can zoning save them?” A great question. But, I still say the answer is yes. However, zoning has to be appropriate and must be made human scale. Municipalities can be zoned for multi use – Jane Jacobs style. A healthy historic village center/downtown will function best when it is a mix of commercial, retail, residential, civic, etc.

      And yes, I agree that only the biggest corporations with the deepest pockets can jump through the permitting hurdles of all levels of government, which is why they can keep hammering the small grass roots committees and municipalities.

Have a thought to share?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s