Editorial

Big Box Stores and Urban Development

The best way to get developers to accept urban criteria is to make the rules clear and simple.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 28, 2007

The big box industry already dominates suburban and exurban commercial development. In their search for new markets to exploit, big box developers are looking at urban centres, which until now have resisted their block busting, sidewalk smashing designs.

Constrained by rising costs that threaten their business model as well as new urbanist civic design regulations, big box stores are trying to reinvent themselves by putting on an urban, pedestrian friendly face.

An urban, pedestrian-friendly big box store in Madison, Wis. (Image Credit: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
An urban, pedestrian-friendly big box store in Madison, Wis. (Image Credit: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

The Hamilton Spectator reports that CPP Investment Board, the crown corporation that owns Centre Mall, has released a $100 million proposal to redevelop the mall into a "super centre" with 23 buildings.

RTH has been following this story since the idea first surfaced in June 2005 of redeveloping Centre Mall. Early reports indicated a big box development. Since that time, the developer seems to have made some concessions to the mall's urban surroundings:

Ray Lee, acting manager of development planning, said the buildings on the site will be grouped around the edge of the property.

"It's going to create a friendly, pedestrian-oriented design, rather than a commercial island in a sea of parking along Barton Street," he said.

Well, maybe. We'll have to see more details before we can draw conclusions about whether this represents a truly urban project or mere greenwashing. After all, the current model for big box stores is already to place the store around the perimeter, with the openings facing into the interior parking lot.

Again, early signs are not encouraging. Jason Leach saw some blueprints and so far, the plan emphasizes one-storey slab buildings (except a building called the "food court", which rates two storeys).

Don't hold your breath for the city to intervene and demand better. According to a related Spec article, the city is focusing on "'nuts and bolts' issues such as the number of parking spaces, set back requirements and landscaping." Parking and setback requirements are inimical to good urban design.

Urban, Ped-Friendly Big Box

To be truly urban and pedestrian-friendly - in other words, to create a sense of place welcoming enough that people will actually walk there - the Centre Mall redesign should meet the following criteria:

Keep it Simple

The best way to get developers to accept these criteria is to make the building rules clear and simple. Today, the mishmash of cumbersome, counterproductive regulations is a major disincentive to investing downtown. As the city's Residential Intensification Study [PDF] points out:

Antiquated zoning rules, especially setbacks and off-street parking, weaken the project economics by increasing costs and reducing the amount of space available for saleable units.

For direction on how to update our planning framework, Toronto's King-Spadina Secondary Plan is instructive for both the simplicity of its rules and the incredible success of its implementation.

It gives developers ease and flexibility, which lower the barriers to investment. For the community, it has the benefit of preserving those crucial design elements that create vibrant urban spaces.King-Spadina is a tremendous confirmation of Jane Jacobs' contention that the best role of planners is to set the parameters for good development and then get out of the way.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Concerned Observer (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2007 at 10:05:27

You can be rest assured that this development will no doubt be bringing "Big Box" development to the Urban Core. It would be better to integrate residential development into the proposal. However it is unlikely it will happen. Commercial Developers are relunctant to become involved in Residential Development. This will undoubtedly become another poor development example for this fine city.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2007 at 14:35:46

We need to completely gut the zoning and parking bylaws. They are way to arcane and complex. Rewriting them would be easy... because if done correctly there'd be A LOT FEWER LAWS to actually write!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2007 at 15:18:10

I bang on about it a lot (mostly because it's a rare example), but the King-Spadina Secondary Plan in Toronto is just about bang-on. It's written in plannerese, but the rules boil down to:

  1. Build to the sidewalk
  2. No parking requirement
  3. If you want parking, it must go inside or behind
  4. Mixed uses allowed
  5. Main floor should be open to public
  6. Building height should be compatible with surroundings (the developers got the height ceiling raised from six storeys to 16 storeys)

It's really that simple. These rules lower the barriers for developers to invest downtown, grant the maximum freedom to use your property as you wish, and produce a built environment conducive to street life.

Go down to the King-Spadina area. A decade ago it was run down and depressed with many vacant buildings and empty lots. Since then, it has sprung back to life, with tower cranes in every direction, packed sidewalks, new streetcars and lots of new business.

It's proof that you don't need parking to draw people downtown to a vibrant urban neighbourhood.

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By Concerned Observer (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2007 at 22:49:32


I agree the by-laws need to be like they are in Toronto for King and Spadina.

The sad thing is that if parking standards are reduced and that results in congestion than you have more people complaining there is too much congestion. What is necessary is a massive education program to change people's attitudes.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted October 04, 2007 at 11:21:17

What I don't understand is why anyone would support building these structures at all. I don't know anybody who enjoys going to the Meadowlands or Wal-Mart or really, any big box location.

I do, however, know lots of people who tolerate the conditions in these concrete expanses because the prices are good and the selection is wide.

Are city planners really so different from the rest of us? Are the "architects" who create these buildings so different, too? Or does everyone pretty much just accept that low prices and wide variety have to go along with mind-numbing parking lots, insane traffic, no way to walk from A to B, and a generally unpleasant shopping experience?

The marketplaces in the poor nations I have visited, like Cuba or (not as poor), Mexico, are infinitely more enjoyable to shop in than our big box developments. And yet, for some reason, in our rich nation, we seem incapable of building a plaza that anyone actually wants to be in.

I really don't think that the people who build these things, the people that own them, or the people who work in them, actually like anything about them besides the dollars and cents they generate. I really, truly don't understand why they keep building them this way.

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By Cal DiFalco (registered) - website | Posted October 05, 2007 at 14:32:16

I like the concept of providing simple and yet, effective standards to guide development. On a more macro level, I think the City needs an over arching vision, corresponding principles that guide decision making and that cascade downwards to a transformed city that actually has a thread to aspire to. As it stands now, many have a vision (see the recent spec articles) but the methodology to get us there is all but defined.

Without an overall archtecture of what we are to be, the risk of one-offs, and ideas that may sound good in their own right but not as good as part of an overall orchestrated piece, is quite real.

Caldifalco@cogeco.ca

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By srougas99 (registered) | Posted October 15, 2007 at 00:19:58

A Centre Mall retailer mentioned to me that they have to be out by March.

Lets hope for once that the city sees the importance of good development for the long term health of the community.

Outstanding article, I have set the links to friends.

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By Genghis (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2007 at 15:01:30

"What I don't understand is why anyone would support building these structures at all. I don't know anybody who enjoys going to the Meadowlands or Wal-Mart or really, any big box location.

I do, however, know lots of people who tolerate the conditions in these concrete expanses because the prices are good and the selection is wide.

Are city planners really so different from the rest of us? Are the "architects" who create these buildings so different, too? Or does everyone pretty much just accept that low prices and wide variety have to go along with mind-numbing parking lots, insane traffic, no way to walk from A to B, and a generally unpleasant shopping experience?

The marketplaces in the poor nations I have visited, like Cuba or (not as poor), Mexico, are infinitely more enjoyable to shop in than our big box developments. And yet, for some reason, in our rich nation, we seem incapable of building a plaza that anyone actually wants to be in.

I really don't think that the people who build these things, the people that own them, or the people who work in them, actually like anything about them besides the dollars and cents they generate. I really, truly don't understand why they keep building them this way."

>Well, I am not a Big Box supporter per say but I do believe they serve a purpose in the de facto sprawl we have.Bad design begets bad design.

Downtown stores, if given the same prices as bigbox centres would thrive perhaps,butwhen I go to any downtown city it is not to shop for my"supplies" that BB places provide.I go downtown to socialize,Entertainment, browse and yes shop but in a casual way.

A good example of a bad example is Brantford.A Sears store and shopping mall right on the main street= abandoned main street boarded up.Tried to marry the mall with the core and ended up with a sorry mess.

Big box stores are rightfully out in the urban sprawl where no downtown exists nor can exist.I am not against them per say, but where they are located and designed.Can you imagine all the traffic if all the BB stores and all the cars around them tried to get into the city and shop..even if the malls were designed in a perfect pedestrian way?Ugh The fact is not everyone can live in the city, and with the best use of space in the suburbs where land is cheaper,lots of parking with lots of variety is the cheapest form of delivery of products and services.. garden hose style.Not my bag( moved from suburb sprawl to Hamilton City to get away from it)or eclectic mix but consumers keep going to them.

A big box is simply the shopping mall of inner suburbia from the 70s take one more step to the fringes.Ugly perhaps,but not necessarily inneficient for the poorly laid outlying areas.I would really ( and do really hate to see) Sears appliance shops,Bell Mobility,Outback, etc downtown on the high street.The "franchising" of the city core is worse than the BB centre itself.

The downtown shopping experience is more of a social thing than a " go get my supplies thing".When I need supplies the BB will do..unpleasant as it is but it is 1 trip,less gas, less time,less parking hassle( once I am parked)all my needs are met, I then go home.I do not shop at BB's because of price. it is because of convenience believe it or not.I hate shopping Wal mart and the like because of their predatory business practices.

Keep building BB centres by all means when and where necessary( the market will decide).Just let the local governments zone them WAY outside city centres.There is a reason they do not survive in downtown cores even if he space was available.They suck as a downtown shopping experience.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2007 at 09:03:26

"The fact is not everyone can live in the city"

Boston (the city proper, not the larger metro area) has 600,000 people living on 40 square kilomatres. Hamilton (again, the city proper) has 400,000 people living on 120 square kilometres.

Other than a small cluster of tall commercial buildings in the financial district and a couple of towers in the Back Bay, Boston is all three- and four-storey town houses and apartments.

The most valuable residential neighbourhood in the US, Beacon Hill, is a cluster of mid-19th century row houses on narrow, tree-lined streets with no parking.

The streets are terrible for driving and parking is at a premium, but the Boston subway line is fast and convenient and carries 500,000 passengers a day.

These are not all coincidences.

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By Genghis (anonymous) | Posted October 22, 2007 at 14:50:37

Ryan;

Not sure where you are going with that.

Are you saying because Botson has a certain density with surrounding areas that Hamilton should be the same?

I have no argument with increasing density, but still not everyone can live in the City

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2007 at 15:00:22

Where I'm going is that the case for low density suburbia is based on a false economy made possible by cheap land, cheap energy, publicly funded highways and friendly land use regulations. Replace the parameters that produce sprawl with parameters that high quality urban development instead, and many people who currently "can't" live in the city will have a change of heart.

My point is that a dense, vibrant urban environment doesn't have to look like midtown Manhattan, and it doesn't have to be family-unfriendly.

In fact, the suburbs are among the least friendly places for children to grow up, given lack of community amenities and dramatically heightened risk of injury and death in vehicle collisions:

http://www.raisethehammer.org/article/07...

Over time, given escalating constrains in energy availability, most suburban areas will either be urbanized, ruralized, or lost to decay and despair.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted October 22, 2007 at 18:34:27

It's already happening in the States:

www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/03/AR2007090301114.html?hpid=topnews

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