Talking Chain Stores & Big Boxes

Let’s talk about chain stores & big box stores. Let’s begin with a bunch of questions for thought about the location of chains & big boxes.

Chain establishments are sometimes inevitable. We all know that. We see that as we travel the country (and world). And most of us cannot avoid chains completely. (If you do, please share your secrets). When we accept that fact on some level, we are left with the next step: how to make chain stores work with our communities, specifically the built environment.

Remember this Dollar General found in historic Fair Haven, VT? Would you shop here? Why or why not?

Maybe proper location is one answer. That goes hand-in-hand with proper zoning and a community master plan. Does the location of a chain store or big box store matter to you? In other words, if you do shop or eat at chain establishments (and most of us do, however infrequently), are you more likely to patronize one in a downtown/village/neighborhood setting or one in a strip mall or in its own structure? And are you more likely to be a customer if you feel the building fits with the built environment? Or less likely if you find the building to be intrusive and inappropriate?

Smaller chains might be a better example for this question, those such as Starbucks or Subway or hardware stores like Ace or Aubuchon. If you see one of those businesses in a downtown, would you be inclined to shop there? Are you then more likely to ease up a bit and shop at one that is outside of downtown or in a less than ideal location?

Do you have a pet peeve for a particular chain? For instance, I am perturbed entirely when giant drug stores insist on having their own building and parking lots. If you have a particular big box that you always avoid, at what lengths do you have to go to do so?

If you’d like to contribute to this discussion, one question or all, please answer in the comments.

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.}

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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?

Chains that Change?

Chain stores. Big box retailers. Corporate America. Capitalistic society.  Independently owned. Mom & Pop. Local business. Local economy. Small scale.

All businesses started small at some point. Right? And some just kept growing. Or some went too far. Yes? No?  We could debate the American economy and society all day long, as well as the pros/cons, and roots of all large businesses. (Feel free to start the debate in the comment section if you’re up for tangents. I’ve written about big boxes here and here, among other times.) Instead, let’s think in reverse.

Have you noticed any big box chains giving back to “their” communities? You can usually find a business donating money/supplies/food to a fundraising or community event. That’s normal. It’s good PR, tax write-offs and just a good thing to do. (People are genuinely good, I like to believe. And, for the record, when I mention that big boxes are evil I am referring to the system of big box retailers and the negative effects it has on the core of communities where something existed prior.) Back to the point. Big box corporations help out communities in some ways, it seems.

However, more often than not  you can find that big box retailers often try to replicate the local, independent business –  in subtle aesthetic references and connotations such as calling the food section a “market.” These companies have long ago recognized the value of small scale operations in feeling, only they wanted to create a monopoly of sorts. 

Yet, why should one business offer every service or every product? Granted, this type of consolidation goes way back. Sears & Roebuck is probably familiar to most of us, but it has happened in all generations on varying levels.

Drug stores are an example of a ubiquitous big box store; if you don’t have a CVS or Rite Aid, you probably have Walgreens or Kinney Drugs — or all four of them. Modern drug stores have wiped out local pharmacies in most towns and cities. You can even buy food in the drug store, toys, etc.  With flu season approaching, you may have heard drug stores advertising offers for flu shots, saving you a trip a doctor. Vinny brought this to my attention the other day after hearing it on the news – drug stores are attempting to be seen as “health centers.”  (Oddly enough, these “health centers” are the same drug stores selling junk food.) This is taking business away from an unexpected source – actual doctors and physicians.

Retailers snagging business from non-retail businesses? That is a new level of “Corporate America” complications. Obviously, drug stores are not going to put doctors out of business; but I would imagine that small things like flu shots add to their revenue. I don’t know the economy of the health care world enough to actually comment; but, I will say that when one business sector attempts to control too much of the market share, no good can come of it.

So, I wonder, if chains are doing more to help the community, is it just for business purposes or are they actually trying to be a part of the community. Do you know what I mean? It is sincere or is it business strategy only?

Should chains be changing? Say a drug store chain decided that it wanted to be more like a pharmacy or a health center and less like a mini superstore, would you choose that chain over another?  What if a chain decided to stop building ridiculously large, brand new stores and chose to integrate downtown. Would business practices pertaining to sales or business practices pertaining siting and location matter more to you? They are here to stay, as history indicates, so what can we do to make the economy of chains and local businesses symbiotic?

I have never liked chain drug stores, mostly because every store seems to be one of the large rectangles with giant facades along the highway. I suppose I will not like them unless the entire business policies change: location, products and services. How likely is that?

Big Box Retail & Historic Resources Debate

After last Friday’s post, Hey Wal-Mart! Ever Hear of “Historic Significance”?, Missy left a great comment that I think, should spark a healthy debate between many of us. Here is her comment:

Allow me to counter that petitioning Wal-Mart is not going to stop the real problem, nor is it really fair to blame Wal-Mart. They are doing nothing illegal. If people were concerned about this issue or preserving the battlefield they should have done something before that land was zoned to allow commercial development or any large scale development. Just because what is being built there is not what people wanted is not a valid argument. Even if Wal-Mart is stopped, won’t save the battlefield. Who’s to say Target or Whole Foods or Giant won’t try to locate there instead. Also, I wonder how much of a buffer is needed around historic sites in order for their integrity to remain?

For debate, my response to the comment:

It’s true that the umbrella issue of the story is that any big box retailer or developer is capable of doing the same thing that Wal-Mart is doing in Orange County, VA. It is not illegal to build on that site since it is zoned commercially. And yes, the county should have rezoned the land to protect historic resources, especially a national battlefield. (Similarly, many National Parks are faced with encroachment issues).

However, I imagine that it would impossible to keep up to speed with rezoning and development at the same time. Therefore, I consider this issue to be about more than Wal-Mart. It is about corporate America and developers who feel that they can build anywhere and will not consider other options, or only pretending to consider options, pacifying the “little people”. Fighting the law or big business takes money, which is what such national retailers have, whereas the general population and local governments often do not have.

But, if we are to consider Wal-Mart: as one of the largest corporate retailers, they should assume some responsibility as a representation of how businesses operate. While some businesses are choosing to not follow Wal-Mart’s practices, many are because of the fact that Wal-Mart has been so successful. So, if Wal-Mart will build anywhere, then other businesses will build anywhere because that is how to be successful. And maybe Wal-Mart doesn’t want to be a model for American business, but when you get to the top, it’s hardly avoidable. The same goes for leaders, bosses, owners, oldest siblings, captains, etc. By rising to the top, you have automatically earned the position of a successful model. Just because it is not against the law, does not mean that practices should be overlooked. Change is necessary as society progresses.

And no, petitioning will not help initially, but a solution has to start somewhere. Someone has to take that first step. And sometimes petitions and small news articles are the only ways to get attention. If enough people voice their opinion and are proactive about change, then the small beginnings will have made a difference. If the town or county can stand up to Wal-Mart, then perhaps other businesses will shy around from that area because of the fact that a group actually said no to Wal-Mart and won.

Perhaps, the general population needs a better example on how to bring about change to business and the local government. Clearly, we need to promote rezoning and be proactive, rather than reactive towards protection of historic sites and resources. Any suggestions?

In regards to how much of a buffer is needed to protect historic sites: that seems like an unanswered question. My gut feeling would be the viewshed, but of course that is debatable.

And those are just my thoughts. Anyone else?

Choosing Between Chain Stores

I may have said this before, but occasionally I do drink Starbucks coffee, meaning I willingly hand my money to corporate America. How can I do this? Well, when I buy Starbucks it is because I do not have other options. And if I am going to choose between the chain coffee sellers, I will choose Starbucks based on company policies and yes, taste.  I do enjoy Starbucks coffee (good, black coffee) but when given an option, I’ll take my local coffee shop any day. What about you? When forced to choose a chain store, how do you decide?

I invite readers to respond to Friday’s post and offer your opinions on Wal-Mart and other chain stores in terms of development and responsibility.  Please read the comments, particuarly Missy’s, which brings up excellent discussion points. Post a comment or send an email to preservationinpink@gmail.com. Send it today or tomorrow, please. I’d like to have a few blog posts based on such discussions. No expertise needed, just logical thought of your own!

And for a good Monday thought, here is what I read on the back of my Starbucks cup:

The Way I See it #292

“The way we get to live forever is through memories stored in the hearts and souls of those whose lives we touch. That’s our soul print. It’s our comfort, our emotional nourishment at the end of the day and the end of a life. How wonderful that they are called up at will and savored randomly. It seems to me we should spend our lives in a conscious state of creating these meaningful moments that live on. Memories matter.”

Leeza Gibbons, TV & Radio personality

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Quite applicable to parts of historic preservation, don’t you think?  And of course, it reminds me of oral history. (Though, it’s hard for me to not think about oral history).