Learning to Love the Big Box


As far as this issue goes, I think urbanists ought to wholeheartedly embrace “big box” chain stores. When there’s a problem with an urban-situated big box store, which there often is, it’s because (like the Home Depot near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station) the site has been laid out in a way that’s inappropriate for an urban environment. But such inappropriate structures are hardly unique to big box retailers (the CVS at 7th and Florida has a strongly suburbanist design quality) or to national chains. What’s more, these problems are often caused by misguided regulations (which of course should be fixed, but are not the fault of the big box chains) or else relate to a general lack of experience financing and constructing stores in an urban environment.

But you can make a physical structure, like DC USA in Columbia Heights, that works in an urban environment. And it would work even better if it didn’t have so much shopping.

But the bottom line is that successful chains are successful because they’re good at bringing to market products that people want to buy at the offered price. If you want people to live and shop in cities, you need to open the cities to the firms that are good at bringing to market products that people want to buy at the offered price. It’s probably in the nature of things that big box stores can never be as successful in a big, crowded city as they are in the suburbs and that will be especially true if you insist that they house themselves in urban-appropriate structures. At the same time, the density of well-designed urban neighborhoods naturally supports a much larger array of niche retailers, where the economics point to independent ownership. Both of those things are all to the good.

But trying to keep large retailers out, as such, is a silly goal. It’s just not the case that the alternative to major chains being in the city is for people to do all their shopping at high-cost, low-selection local independent retailers. Instead, people drive to the suburbs. Better to bring some of that commerce into the city, where people can get to it on transit or on foot as well as by car, and where it becomes part of the urban economy.