Monday, January 19, 2009
The economic downturn is doing a lot of damage in the always vulnerable retail sector, and to be more specific, on the big-box retail chains. With the exception of some deeply discounted stores, retailers are struggling, with several going under. The latest on this trend is the once mighty Circuit City electronics chain.
The effects of a big retail chain are significant, and go beyond the job loss. The traditional big box store is an unwieldy creature that requires a very particular development pattern and a very inefficient use of resources: big parking lots, massive building, and a street grid that favors cars above all else. This arrangement is functional (albeit massively inefficient) when the store is open; when it closes its doors, however, it leaves a difficult legacy.
Big box stores are hyperspecialized, single use buildings. A Circuit City is designed to perform one task, and one task only; it is build cheaply, it takes a lot of space, and it can not be used for anything else baring a very expensive refit. To make things worse, the infrastructure around is basically useless outside its now-obsolete function; without a significant investment, and empty big box store can not be reused at all. It is a car-centric, inefficient white elephant.
The comparison with a building in a denser urban core is significant. A big office, retail or residential building within a city is much more versatile. Its placing in a dense area means that it is sharing infrastructure and street grid with several other buildings, reducing costs. The density makes using public transportation more efficient, making it less car-dependant. The increased mixed use makes it less dependant of a single use; a big building can have several uses, making it more flexible. In addition, all these adventages make the building a better candidate for refitting, as the costs are much lower.
As a result, we have building like the Capital Community College in Hartford in Main Street, formerly the G. Fox & Co. Department Store; the Taft Apartments in New Haven, formerly a hotel, or the former factories by the train tracks in the Elm City refurbished into lofts. Urban cores can be -if well supported and rationally taxed- more efficient and flexible that sprawling big box developments; it is a matter of letting cities do what they do best.