Taming the Big Box

By Stephen Cochran

Pentagon City, VA (Credit: Street Google)

We’ve all been here.  It’s one of those places where we hand over $1 billion shopping dollars each year to Maryland or Virginia.  If even half of that money could be spent in DC, our 6% tax rate would generate $30 million in revenue.  That’s enough to supply 300 new affordable housing units, or pay for the education of 1600 District children, every single year.

The city has been working for decades to reverse this loss of dollars, and we’re starting to see results.  Larger retailers are moving into the District to supplement our local stores.  Some are bringing new designs that fit in with, and bring new life to, our traditional neighborhood centers. Others, unfortunately, continue to bulldoze trees, fill in wetlands, or construct stone-walled mesas so they can just replicate their suburban stores.

Planners need to provide models of how major retailers can come into the city without compromising good design and active street life.

Los Angeles, CA (Credit: Stephen Cochran)

This storefront I saw on Broadway in downtown L.A. shows how to do it:  name recognition, openness to the street, pedestrian and bicycles friendliness, and a broad selection of brand goods at every-day low prices.

Having a vital shopping street need not take a zoning overlay, or city subsidies; just some creative entrepreneurs, sensitivity to scale … and a lot of red paint.

2 thoughts on “Taming the Big Box

  1. I feel pretty strongly that this post overlooks some important effects of bringing large retailers into urban communities, and specifically DC. The word “supplement” is used to suggest that small businesses would not be negatively affected by the establishment of a costco/walmart/target in, say, the Rhode Island Ave corridor. But numerous studies point to the dramatic impact that “mom&pop” shops feel when these giants move in – loss of customer base and revenue stream, smaller employee pool, high rents and so on.

    Increased tax revenue is a good thing for the city, in theory, but there is no guarantee that it would be allocated to affordable housing or education (and even if that guarantee was put in place, does not address the other negative impacts of the stores themselves).

    Planners certainly have a very important role to play in mitigating the negative effects on street life and design that box stores almost always have, but should also consider the problematic socioeconomic effect created by these stores as well- good planners shouldn’t just be interested in aesthetic, after all.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sara. While this blog post doesn’t highlight it, OP is responding to the potential impacts of the entry of mass-market businesses. Our programs for small area planning and temporiums are working with local business owners and residents to identify the types of retail and other offerings most needed, and most potentially successful in particular neighborhoods. That may be the subject of a future blog. In the meantime it seemed worth highlighting how some inexpensive and humorous signage, clever displays and a familiarity with the customer base could attract people and bring life to a marginal shopping street.

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