Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Amy Tomasso: An exploration of urban big box retail, Part 1


Something that has fascinated me for a long time is the presence of big box retail in urban downtowns.  It seems like such a paradox—as their name implies, big box stores are awkwardly large, impersonal, and unseemly.  They correspond to vehicular dependence and are generally accompanied by massive parking lots.  In short, big box stores seem to defy the qualities of human scale, pedestrian accessibility, and community orientation touted by movements like Smart Growth and New Urbanism.  They seem to defy the principles of urban functionality.

Yet despite this, big box retail exists in cities with a noticeable and obtrusive presence.  Along the Division Corridor of San Francisco’s SoMa district alone reside a Costco, a Sports Authority, an OfficeMax, and multiple car dealerships.  These stores are unwelcoming and make for a difficult navigational and pedestrian experience.  Why does something so noticeably counterintuitive as urban big box retail continue to persist?

In 2004, the city of San Francisco promulgated its first Formula Retail Use Control Legislation which placed strict limitations and even some outright restrictions on big box and chain retail, and it has revised these ordinances in almost every subsequent year.  Yet not every city has been as open to limiting retail ingrowth as San Francisco and are in fact encouraging it with subsidies and tax breaks, as the example of Sacramento has shown. 

The existence of big box in urban cores raises some bigger issues in my mind.  While a Walmart or Target is not ideal in a traditional urban neighborhood, the alternative development pattern to this is sprawling strip malls and isolated big box clusters.  If big box retail seems to be a fixture in our modern capitalistic society, which of these two locations—the urban or suburban setting—is the lesser of two evils?  Is there any place where the physical mass and convenience retail model of big box will not impede on community interactions and good design strategies? 


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