Best of 2016: The Future of Big Box

This July, we published a week of content focused on big box stores and their negative impact on the economic productivity of our towns. (Read everything from Big Box Stores week.) It was one of our highest-traffic weeks to date and I think that's because big box stores and the many problems they cause in our towns, are something we're all familiar with. Probably many of us see them every day on our way to work. As you travel from a downtown to a suburban area, it's easy to wonder why the development pattern on the edges changes so dramatically. What induces so many big box stores to cluster along certain roads, to build acres of excessive parking, to move into a town at all? During Big Box Stores week, we answered those questions. Johnny's article about two California towns competing to lure in big box retail illustrates (visually and with words) so many of the problems of big box stores create in our communities, particularly when they leave town and abandon their buildings.   -Rachel Quednau

I’m ambivalent about big box stores. I occasionally shop at places like Walmart, Costco, and Target, just like most people. I buy various packaged goods in bulk from these mega retailers to take advantage of a volume discount. I don’t moralize over these things. But when it comes to meat, dairy, and fresh produce I walk around the corner or down the street to my local mom and pop stores, farmers market, or Community Supported Agriculture plan. I’m fine with buying a pallet of inexpensive toilet paper that was manufactured on an industrial scale. Chicken? Not so much.

But I’m really interested in the giant retail buildings themselves. A large proportion of the North American landscape is dominated by big box stores and the associated land use pattern that we’ve all come to recognize. They’re so ubiquitous that we tend not to question how they came into being. I'm going to take some time to explore a retail development in the Antelope Valley in California. I use this example because it’s typical rather than unique. Whether you live in Florida, Texas, or Nebraska, the same dynamics are at work.


The story begins with a rivalry between the two contiguous municipalities of Lancaster and Palmdale. If you were to drive through the Antelope Valley you would have no way of knowing when you had passed through one town and into the other. Not only are they composed of identical building types, but their borders are incredibly intertwined and gerrymandered after decades of annexation in an arms race to see who could grow the fastest.

The big prize is always sales tax revenue from high volume retailers: car dealerships, big box stores, department stores, chain restaurants… Anything with a cash register will do. Like most towns the property tax revenue from residential development isn’t nearly enough to cover the costs of city services such as schools, road maintenance, and police and fire protection. Sales tax receipts are desperately needed to fill the gap. The construction and service jobs associated with new retail are also welcomed by city authorities. New growth is paramount at the economic development agencies.

With this in mind the City of Lancaster prepared a site for a regional shopping mall in the late 1980’s. The land next to the freeway was set aside, it was properly zoned, expensive infrastructure was installed, a “business friendly” package of heavy subsidies and sweeteners was put in place, and an extensive lobbying campaign was launched. Basically, Lancaster hiked up its skirt, put on a Wonder Bra and a lot of rouge and hoped a big strong regional shopping mall would come calling...

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