The Empty Box

Posted by    |    May 19th, 2011 at 5:10 am

After World War II, communities across the country embarked on a new form of city building that was based soley on distant separation of zoning (business here, homes there) and reliance on the automobile. This deviation of form broke from thousands of years of knowledge on how cities have grown, and thrived around the world. At a time when gas was under $1 a gallon, and commutes were under 20 minutes, this form was a welcome change and allowed for tapping into larger land parcels at cheaper prices and created the movement away from the inner city. This redesigned form placed the small-building with small entrepreneur at the sidelines and hastened the development of what we’ve all come to know as the “big box”.

So what’s the problem with the “big box” and why are so many people in Oak Cliff beginning to fight against it? Drive to any 20+ year old shopping center in the country and you’ll quickly see why…massive vacant store fronts that are unusable to any small business person and remain ghost towns that rapidly lower home values, create a mass exodus toward newer communities that are not vacant, and lower the perception of safety for entire neighborhoods. We’re pockmarked with these buildings throughout Oak Cliff including a boarded up Luby’s, and Safeway on Fort Worth Avenue. Within a 5 mile radius you’ll find shuttered Albertson’s, KMart’s, Mervyn’s and beyond that Circuit City’s, Expo Design Centers, Drug Emporiums, and more. The debate on the new Wal-Mart also highlights the reality of creating more empty boxes with the inevitable shuttering of the Minyard’s and the recently opened Aldi which sits on the same block. Worst of all, it’s too expensive to tear them down, so they remain boarded up and lining our neighborhoods.

At the base of the argument, proponents of the low-cost big box discuss the need for this space because of its potential to help “the poor”. The reality is, when the form is wrong, the poor suffer most. Noone can comfortably walk or bicycle with their child from their home to a big box outlet. When a poor person has to own an automobile to simply buy a gallon of milk, we’re left with perpetually enabling a cycle of poverty. The APTA recently put out a study noting that the average price of vehicle ownership per month in Dallas (that includes car price, gas, insurance, registration, parking, tolls, etc.) is $776. For someone who has little means, that’s up to 50% of their income. And gas prices aren’t going down anytime soon.

Sadly, the other fatality in the equation is the small business connected to the strip center which the big box supports. Once the anchor closes, a rapid hemorrhaging of the small stores attached to it follow.

So what form works? It’s simple…think small. Who do we want to enable in our community, the small business storefront or the giant box? Which one allows for a small entrepreneur to get a toe hold in business? Which one can be immediately reborn if the building closes? Which one is safe for children and the elderly to walk to? Which one creates pride in a community? Which one is the long term solution for helping the poor? Keep in mind, that 50% of residents in Dallas don’t own a car…they’re either too young, too old, too poor, or have disabilities. So which development is inclusive of all?

The small street lined with thin, connected buildings, and smaller storefronts are found in cities around the world. From Mexico City to Johannesburg, and from London to New York City. They’re the great streets that are filled with life, small business, outdoor markets, children walking, students bicycling, and elderly sitting outside. They’re sustainable, they’re active, and they promote small business.

Jefferson Boulevard. Small storefronts that can quickly and affordably be reused. Also, seniors can live above the shops and continue to stay in their communities by having all of their needs in walking distance.

 

In the end, Wal-Mart can still be a player in the neighborhood and provide a needed service to the area…it just has to get the form right. It’s being done in cities around the country now by many large businesses but it does require a bit more creativity at the outset. Three simple rules are required: 1 – Build to the sidewalk and face the street, 2 – create permeable surfaces (allow light in and out and people to window shop), 3- hide the parking from the street. That’s it…if this is done, the building can be reused and re-adapted over and over again.  The beauty is, we already have a template to follow: Jefferson Boulevard, and the Bishop Arts District. What hurts these two areas are that we’ve not created ample parking solutions that are hidden from the street.  Bishop has one lot, but as it grows, we’ll need to make accommodations for more…but the upside is that neighbors can walk and bike to these businesses with their families. These two places create a unique identity for our community and drive new business, innovation, and create great places that we can all live, work, and play in.