This week at Strong Towns, we’ve published a variety of viewpoints on the question: “Is it possible and/or worthwhile to retrofit suburbia, or would we be better off abandoning underused suburban spaces?”

Most of our members who submitted answers responded something in between: Most big box stores will fail and our cities should never have invested in them in the first place, but there may been creative ways to handle a few abandoned stores.

Johnny Sanphillippo illustrates the colossal waste of space and infrastructure created in the hopes of attracting big box developments in Lancaster, CA. Read the whole story.

Johnny Sanphillippo illustrates the colossal waste of space and infrastructure created in the hopes of attracting big box developments in Lancaster, CA. Read the whole story.

Nathan Lewis argued that most big box stores could not be retrofitted because they lacked the surrounding infrastructure to become walkable, compact places.

Michael Mortensen and Andrew Price showed us promising urban versions of big box stores.

Morgan Maoilie highlighted the space advantages of suburbia, which may offer opportunities for farming, solar power collection and entrepreneurship.

Cliff Moser and Thomas Broderick suggested that select big box spaces that are well-connected by transit and walkability could be reused in the future, but most could not.

Cami Sanders proposed building new stores and housing in big box parking lots to modify the street grid and remove stroads.

Johnny Sanphillippo showed us the demise of big box stores in California and the failure to make anything meaningful out of the space.

I find this diversity of answers compelling and significant because in truth, one answer is not realistic for every city in the nation. Some towns will indeed find ways to retrofit (as we've already seen). Others will bulldoze those vacant stores and wait for a new idea to come along later. Some towns, which can hardly cover the cost of fixing a pothole today, will do nothing with the empty big box stores. They’ll languish and fall into disrepair. Nature will reclaim them.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that unless something drastic changes, the latter will be the fate of the majority of big box stores.

But if you’re lucky, your town is paying attention to this conversation. It’s not too late to turn back and recognize what a harmful and wasteful investment big box stores are. It’s not too late to stop welcoming them into our towns, subsidizing their existence and praising them as boons for our economy when they are, in fact, the opposite. It's not too late to think about economic alternatives like local businesses and smaller, more adaptable buildings.

The new database we announced this week is one way for Strong Towns to help spread that message. When it’s finished, we hope you’ll use it to show your local leaders what a bad investment big box stores are.

So far, we’ve received submissions of tax data on big box stores, malls, mixed-use developments and high-rise buildings. From a Walmart in Mobile, AL with a tax productivity of just over $10,000 per acre to Seattle’s tallest building, the Columbia Center, which has a tax productivity of more than $390 million per acre, we’ve received data on hundreds of buildings in states across the country. Thank you to everyone who has participated.

This is the future of big box.

This is the future of big box.

But we need a lot more in order to make this project a success. Please take a few minutes to investigate the tax productivity of a couple buildings in your town and submit you’re data. I guarantee you’ll learn something new in the process. And while you’re filling out the form, make sure to add comments at the end to share your ideas for how to use this data, or follow-up questions for us to pursue in our research.

As Chuck Marohn mentioned at the start of this week, the dirty little secret of big box development is that the buildings are designed to be abandoned. He wrote:

They are throw-away buildings with a shelf life of twelve to fifteen years. The utilities aren’t abandoned, however. They now become the eternal obligation, because now they not only serve the abandoned site, but they are essential to providing service to those further upstream… It’s a dead site, but it continues to cost taxpayers large sums of money.

We must begin doing the math on these projects instead of just assuming that new growth will save us. It won't. The more big box stores our towns invest in, the deeper we dig ourselves into the hole—expanding miles of road and pipe out to edge developments that will, in all likelihood, be vacant in 10 or 20 years.

Why are we pursuing a relationship with someone that doesn’t love us back? Why do we invite big box stores into our our towns, enticing them with subsidies and infrastructure, competing for their attention, all so they can offer residents low-wage part-time jobs, pay minimal property taxes, then leave 15 years later? In what universe is that a worthwhile venture?

We've created a destructive game where the prime casualty is the financial solvency of our cities, towns and neighborhoods. It's time to change the rules of the game, stop risking everything for these stores, and start building Strong Towns.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)


Related stories