This week, Strong Towns' members and readers respond to the questions: Is it possible and/or worthwhile to retrofit suburbia/big box stores, or would we be better off abandoning underused suburban spaces? How might we go about retrofitting big box stores for future use?

Here's Strong Towns member, Cliff Moser's, answer.


Grocery shopping, circa 1970 (photo by Debbie Mc)

Grocery shopping, circa 1970 (photo by Debbie Mc)

The End of the Extraction Economy

Strong Towns has recently been reporting on the role of the modernist economy and its creation of suburbia, as well as its diminishing effect on the future of community infrastructure. Big box retailers have been a major player in this economy and built-environment. Effectively displacing the retail middle-man of the past, the big box is the modernist representation of the public’s access to wholesale warehouses. Convened as a way to bring warehouse savings to the general public, big grocery stores became destination hubs for consumer demand in the 1960s. Surrounded by acres of free parking, and miles of suburban housing, they provided the space for buying and selling free market goods.

In the 1970s, these same stores initiated access fees for national consumer brands and sold shelf space in their stores through slotting fees. Later, Walmart and other retailers leveraged this activity, and soon, the big box retailer became nothing but a distribution shell for thousands of consumer brands' warehousing networks. Subsequently, the trained, experienced and unionized staff of the former middle-men stores were replaced by un-skilled low-cost minders who simply opened doors, swept floors, returned items to shelves, and operated checkout registers. And once self-checkouts arrived, that workforce was further reduced in size.

Our modernist economy needs big box retailers as a centralized resource hub, where mono-cultured activities are zoned and streamlined—clothes, produce, dairy, and electronics all in one place. In this economy, the supporting architectural infrastructure is suburbia, and zoned and streamlined as well. This zoning increases efficiency and minimizes the friction of transactions with large providers. The enormous quantities of pistachios and toilet paper purchased at Costco feed this efficiency. And the quest for continued frictionless purchasing drives online retail, whose end deliverable is the Amazon Dash button.

However, this efficiency is just a continuation of our extraction economy. We treat Big Boxes as mines to be filled up and exhausted. Once depleted, we move on to design and build the next bigger mine, abandoning the former as if were a superfund site for public cleanup. The economics of Big Boxes and Suburbia match the extraction industry as well. Enticed by taxes and jobs, communities spend public money to build a supporting infrastructure providing access for the mine’s owners, with the hope that the promised benefits will outweigh the initial and ongoing continuous costs to the community; only to be disappointed as the owner moves on, leaving abandoned single-use buildings and acres of surface parking behind.

How do we bring economic and infrastructure diversity back into our economy? How do we clean up the empty and abandoned mines waiting for the next big box retailer that may never come?

Suburbia is an integral link of extraction economics. In the past, public transit would be needed to support a new community, and a diverse economy would follow with housing, schools, institutions and human-scaled retail. The car economy changed that, with its requirements for standardized and separated efficiency for housing and retail, connected with easy-to-follow zoning linked by highways and parking lots, and serviced by individually-owned automobiles. Since many jobs were connected to the automobile supply chain, the extraction economy became an aspirational spiral of trade ups, enabling the participants to enjoy current and new benefits while deferring future costs.

How do we bring financial and infrastructural diversity back into our economy? How do we clean up the empty and abandoned mines waiting for the next big box retailer that may never come?

Economic Diversity through Pace-Layering Design

Our challenge is that the zoning in our modernist economy doesn’t enable easy adaptation. Retrofitting is difficult. There are success stories (Texas’ largest library occupies a former Walmart, and what was once a Circuit City is now medical offices in San Francisco), but the urban planning mono-culture promotes only single-use solutions. In the past, incremental design and construction enabled sustainable adaptation and change. Then again, that Walmart library in Texas is still docked at the end of acres of parking. As a parent, I wince at the thought of dragging my kids through that no-man’s land to get to story time.

Pace layering design enables a building and its site to adapt, to perform its function as part of an ever changing system. Pace Layering (conceptualized by architect, Frank Duffy) is architecture shaped by the six S’s -Site, Structure, Skin, Systems, Space Planning, and Stuff. In the context of a big box store, site, skin and structure are the hardest to retrofit.

In Oakland, CA, we currently have an empty Walmart just off of the I-880 Freeway, between our airport and our sports stadiums. The airport and the stadium are served by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a subway and elevated train line that has served the Bay Area since the 1970s. The remainder of the area is designed as a modernist mono-cultured environment served best by roads and free parking. Buses provide service to the marginalized with minimal car ownership. Zoning keeps everything separate and spaced far apart so that private cars alone provide the best interlink.

An old warehouse turned into loft condos in Milwaukee, WI (Photo by Dori)

An old warehouse turned into loft condos in Milwaukee, WI (Photo by Dori)

Indeed, the overhead BART line ignores the communities below it as it travels back and forth to the airport. Because that’s how modernists think and plan (I’m an architect in this economy, so I know). Why integrate with the neighborhood? Let’s create individual flyovers to serve a single purpose – getting people to and from the airport. 

If diverse design engagements had existed within our economy, BART stations may have been designed and built along the elevated rails, and transit-oriented development could have replace the multiple empty parking lots that our BART flyover passes to and from the airport. Our now abandoned Walmart could have been broken up, and re-designed, using the S’s of space planning and systems to create art and studio spaces, and small retail, coffee shops, and housing.

In contrast, the pace layered warehouses of nearby Emeryville, CA easily became live work spaces as their 6 S’s facilitated flexibility and adaption. Especially since their sites—while first designed for warehousing, loading and deliveries—were designed to support flexibility and reworking, and included streets, roads, and sidewalks that were necessary and integral to their original human-based design instead of automobile-based storage in parking lots twice the size of the structure. Adaption is part of the design, so retrofitting was easy.

If our Oakland Walmart (and other deserted big box stores across the nation) had been built with an eye toward retrofit, with public transit like BART actively connecting it to nearby housing, then reuse would be possible. But unfortunately, for most big box stores, that's not the case.

Flexible zoning based on incremental adaptation builds a community platform that supports economic diversity. Communities that resisted the mono-cultured solutions to “fix” their neighborhoods (or weren’t ever asked to participate in the first place) are the ones that are currently thriving and those are models we should continue to push. 

(Top photo by Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited)


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About the Author

Cliff Moser is an architect working for Stanford Healthcare helping design and build the New Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California. With over twenty years of experience, he has practiced architecture in Salt Lake City, Denver, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and now the Bay Area. A pugnacious urbanist, pedestrian, and bicyclist, he has despised the amount of space dedicated to free and cheap parking and is a champion for the final disruption of the individually owned and operated automobile through self-drivers. He is the author of Architecture 3.0: The Disruptive Design Handbook.