This week, Strong Towns' members and readers respond to the questions: Is it possible and/or worthwhile to retrofit suburbia, 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, Cami Sander's answer.
My hometown of Riverdale City, UT has many of the elements of a strong town: engaged citizens, a strong sense of community, and sound city management. But the city has some unique and interesting challenges. Riverdale is a big-box mecca in Northern Utah. Think of any national big box chain and we probably have one in our city. There are very few local businesses represented amongst the retail giants and chain restaurants. This is not altogether negative: local taxes and fees are relatively low, products and services are convenient, and we attract shoppers and workers from the entire region.
With ample retail development along Riverdale Road, the ultimate street/road hybrid, this small community of 8,500 has many of the challenges of a bigger city. Due to the City’s commercial base, the Mayor estimates that the daytime population is between 50,000 and 60,000 people that come from the entire region to work and shop here.
Market downturns and changing demands have left many of the “boxes” empty for extended periods of time. The buildings have filled temporary needs but do not come close to their highest possible use. About four years ago, Best Buy changed locations within the city leaving their original building empty. It has provided an economical place for my daughter’s soccer team to practice in the winter, but not much else. Seasonally, Halloween stores will lease these empty buildings. There was even a haunted house set up in a vacant Walmart building, demonstrating the creepiness of these empty behemoths.
This year the county completed a new $23 million new library building on a piece of undisturbed ground. It’s true that locals are happy to have a new library (I visit at least once a week). But we could have had a similar outcome for less expense by reusing an existing big box structure that already has utilities, parking lots and structures. This was a missed opportunity to have a creative reconfiguration of a big box to meet a higher need.
Riverdale, like many cities developed in the last half of the 20th century, lacks a traditional Town Center and the solution isn’t a simple one. Riverdale Road, the “stroad” down the middle of the city, is managed by the state DOT and the City itself doesn’t have much flexibility to make improvements. Riverdale Road has eight lanes of traffic (nine in some areas). Along a 1-mile stretch, there are more than 30 curb-cut accesses to businesses and side streets necessitating turn lanes and signals. The posted speed limit 40 mph. The sidewalks are 5 to 6 feet wide with no buffer between pedestrians and vehicles.
Cities across the country may see no way out of the current big box/strip mall development pattern. It would not be economically viable or fair for these cities to turn completely against their existing big box retailers, but it is also not viable for local economies to be almost entirely dependent on them. Cities like Riverdale can take steps toward a gradual transition from big-boxes and strip malls to human-scaled, multi-use commercial and residential developments. City officials and citizens can propose solutions that meet the needs of more users and provide benefits to many different stakeholders.
Street or Road
Turning stroads into either streets or roads is one of the first steps for communities like Riverdale to transition away from big-box retail. As seen in many other cities, the only areas that have been developed for commercial use are along these stroads. Cities can use these same areas to provide the platform for more sustainable, small-scale economic development opportunities.
Use Existing Infrastructure
Cities can use the existing wide stroads to their advantage by proposing the elimination of most of the access points and curb cuts along designated stretches. Traffic signals that allow drivers to turn into the existing strip malls could be placed at further intervals. Doing this could make right and left turn lanes unnecessary in most areas. The stroad could then be narrowed by at least 10 feet on both sides.
Big box developments usually have deep setbacks with excessive parking in front of the buildings. This land could be used to build small shops, offices, restaurants and even residences lined with a wide sidewalk/bike path on the “inside” as a street parallel to the high speed road. The path could provide an inviting pedestrian environment with walking access to the small shops and big boxes. To get to the big box stores and new local shops, drivers can access the abundant parking from the few access points and have a launching point to walk (or bike share) to a wide variety of establishments ranging from chain stores to quaint restaurants.
We should prepare for the possibility of dwindling future demand for big box stores to the point that they stay permanently empty and are eventually torn down. Cities can potentially buy this property to either create actual streets, convert to green space, or provide bike/pedestrian access from adjacent neighborhoods to the commercial areas.
Political and financial barriers to change may be overcome by helping all users see how they might directly benefit from improvements:
- Removing curb cuts and accesses and limiting signals along roads appeals to the DOT’s traffic engineers. It is a step toward their goals of increased traffic volumes, reduced congestion, maintained speeds and fewer accidents.
- It is in the interest of current property owners to keep their land financially productive and empty boxes will not make that happen. We are already seeing changing demands as many of the big box stores sit empty. Smaller shops in a traditional style allow developers to maximize the productivity of their land and improve their resilience to market changes. A city can help facilitate these developments by implementing more flexible codes and by providing the supporting infrastructure.
- Drivers currently using the stroads to get from place to place benefit from having a road that has less congestion, increased safety and fewer stops at traffic lights. They also get the benefit of having a broader variety of goods and services available in one place.
- The benefits to cyclists and pedestrians are evident in that there is now a safe, comfortable place to walk or ride to meet their needs.
- Environmental benefits come from fewer car trips, more miles walked or biked, and more green space.
- Culturally, our places benefit from the establishment of community gathering places and transportation options for all users.
- The city benefits through increased productivity of the land which results in increased sales and property tax revenues. A diversified “portfolio” of business types can make a city more economically resilient and provide a wider variety of jobs.
Big boxes are not the enemy; they are the natural byproduct of our suburban development pattern. It is in the interest of all involved to find economically viable and beneficial ways for these different land uses to coexist either temporarily or permanently.
(All photos by Cami Sanders)
About the Author
Cami Sanders works for a civil engineering company as a grant writer, proposal manager and assistant planner. She has contentedly lived in Riverdale, Utah for 16 years with her husband and three children. She loves British literature, Italian architecture, Indian food, French history, Austrian economics, and American politics.