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?

More on New Houses

With preservationists I know, myself included, there is often a fair amount of snickering when new buildings and developments are concerned. Either they are insensitive to the surroundings, the massing is completely overstated, it’s one of those new giant McMansion cookie cutter homes, it’s in a poorly chosen location, or it replaced a farm or existing structures. I’ve heard people laugh at new construction that mimics historic architecture. Oh it’s trying too hard or oh, isn’t that cute, it kind of looks like saltbox houses. You get my point. There is always something. So what’s the answer? We can’t stop building. (Remember preservation is NOT anti-development; rather smart, complementary development. Development is not necessarily meant in the structural sense either.) Unfortunately, it is impossible, even with all of the rehabilitation of existing historic structures, to house the ever expanding population. The 21st century population does not fit in the 20th century built environment in terms of numbers. Thus, new construction and development is inevitable.

I bring up these points to address a, perhaps indistinguishable, fine line – the gray area of new construction looking new and original or mimicking historic architecture. Do we as preservationists and architectural historians scoff at new “planned” communities or suburban developments as a knee-jerk reaction because we automatically think that it is unnecessary? Let’s say development is needed: when should it blend into the existing built environment and when should (or can) it be different? Do you see what I mean? I’ve been thinking that new developments are what irk preservationists the most, whether thoughtless, ill planned cookie cutter plats or “thoughtful” new urbanism type developments. What we prefer is clever infill or sympathetic and complementary “additions” to existing towns and cities.  Smart Growth factors come into play here: mixed use, compact design, existing communities. When infill and extensions are concerned, it seems that sympathetic architectural designs fit well. But, when these same “colonial” houses are blown out of proportion and placed on flat, treeless lots is when we snicker.

For me, there is an internal debate of wanting to like the carefully, thoughtfully designed new housing developments because they look like more than boxes vs. despising any kind of giant housing that claims to promote neighborhoods when really it’s just a bunch of housing with some park space. Am I the only one? Come on preservationists, have you seen a development that you almost wanted to like but your preservation ethics prevent you from doing so? I should add the disclaimer that 99% of the time I tend to glare at housing developments stuck in the middle of nowhere – you know, those with names based on the farm they replaced.

Considering design and to prevent snickering, maybe clearly distinguishing the historic from the non historic would be a better idea? Look at the architecture in the mid 20th century. It is a new kind of animal, a step in the opposite direction of Queen Anne, Romanesque, Italianate and similar styles. But then homeowners seemed to switch back to wanting more traditional looking elements in their houses, hence the everlasting “style” of Colonial Revival. (Which, for the record is inaccurate – not every type of house is Colonial Revival!) How do we accurately describe the styles of 21st century buildings? The wonderful book, A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester pays less attention to the architecture styles of the late 20th century. Are we not far enough removed to describe recent structures? Will everything always be traced back to Georgian, Italianate, Greek, Post Colonial, Queen Anne, Spanish Colonial, Prairie, etc.? I am curious to learn about modern (as in the last couple decades) architecture and how it will later mesh will preservationists. Any thoughts?