Taming the Big Box

Facing market saturation and backlash from local communities, mega-retailers are forced to think outside the proverbial big box to reach new markets.
August 11, 2010

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past several years, you've probably noticed the often-fierce battles that are being waged between big-box retailers and local communities—from small rural towns to sprawling suburbs to bustling metropolises.

Communities are fighting back against large discount retailers, which for decades have, under the impetus of furious national expansion plans, thrown up standalone, cookie-cutter behemoths with little thought to architectural design, land-use planning, or community development issues.

Wal-Mart, the King Kong among the 800-pound gorillas in the big-box market, generates most of the headlines. But all the major discounters are facing the same resistance at the local level.

These communities are calling for big-box retailers to dress up and mitigate the mass of the box. They're demanding that the mega-boxes be better integrated with the community and surrounding neighborhood. And they're backing up their bark with some serious bite, such as size restrictions, design regulations, community standards, and land-use ordinances.

This backlash makes the development of these giant retailers ever more complex for Building Teams. At the same time, big-box retailers are coming to rely on the expertise of Building Teams to balance their own and their developers' needs with those of the communities they're serving.

"Many retailers know that when they come into a local jurisdiction, they may have to custom tailor their design to the needs of the community," says Cameron Gloss, director of current planning for the city of Fort Collins, Colo. The bustling mountain city of 130,000 located 60 miles north of Denver was one of the first in the nation to adopt mandatory design regulations for big-box retail.

Enacted in 1995, the city's "Design Standards and Guidelines for Large Retail Establishments" regulate everything from façade detailing and landscaping to building orientation and parking lot configuration, even down to the type of fencing. The regulations have become a model for others, including Tucson, Ariz., and Dane County, Wis.

"We're not looking for high-end materials like copper flashings or wood trim work," says Mike Slavney, principal with Madison, Wis.-based planning firm Vandewalle & Associates, who recently authored big-box ordinances for several towns in Dane County, Wis., including Stoughton and Mt. Horeb. "We want architecture and site planning that you would find in a quality office or multifamily building."

Slavney provides a few specific examples from ordinances in Dane County:

  • Decorative concrete block walls vs. plain cinder block

  • Aluminum picket fencing for outdoor display areas and to conceal dumpsters, loading docks, and mechanical systems vs. standard chain link fencing

  • Extensive foundation landscaping vs. plain aprons in front of the building

  • Hard materials (e.g., stucco and concrete block) for the bottom eight feet of the building vs. soft exterior materials that can be dented by carts, forklifts, or vehicles.

Gloss says that most retailers are willing to follow the aesthetic upgrade and land planning requirements of the ordinance, but often resist changes to the size, orientation, and layout of the actual box. The Fort Collins ordinance requires parking to be distributed around the sides and sometime even rear of the building, with multiple entrances into the store. Retailers have concerns about security, patron circulation, and optimal configuration of the merchandise.

"There's certainly pressure on the architects to stick with the corporate prototype, with one major entrance facing a field of parking," says Gloss.

The ordinance in Overland Park, Kan., takes these regulations a step further, requiring separate entrances for each enterprise within a big-box store, says Christopher Duerksen, principal with Clarion Associates, Denver, who wrote big-box ordinances for Overland Park and Fort Collins.

"That means that the Wal-Mart with an optometrist and McDonald's inside will have [to have] three entrances," says Duerksen. "Communities are looking to create more of a feel of a shopping precinct rather than a single store."

The latest generation of ordinances places even stiffer demands on retailers. In February, Modesto, Calif., passed an ordinance that, among other things, requires big-box stores to pay for an economic impact study before starting construction on a new store. Proposed ordinances in Sacramento, Calif., and Wauwatosa, Wis., would require retailers to obtain demolition bonds before construction so that the city would not be stuck paying to raze the structure if the development fails.

Slavney says these additional requirements could tack a 1–5% premium on total construction costs compared with a retailer's typical store design. In return, local communities can offer to expedite plan approvals and permitting. "Most big boxes have been happy to comply, because they understand time is money," he says. "Plus, it sure beats being in a political quagmire for two years."

Of course, some retailers seem more than willing to play politics, wage court battles, or look for loopholes in local design ordinances. Wal-Mart, for instance, recently announced a plan to bifurcate its store planned for Dunkirk, Md., to meet Calvert County's 75,000-sf big-box size limit.

The twin Wal-Mart plan, the first of its kind for the Bentonville, Ark., retailer, will consist of a 74,998-sf store adjacent to a 22,689-sf garden center, each with its own entrance, utilities, bathrooms, and cash registers. Future expansion could add separate buildings for an auto repair shop and a food store. Community activists claim the scheme violates the intent of the regulation, and they plan to fight the proposal at upcoming planning board meetings.

Slavney says the countywide approach to regulation not only prevents neighboring towns from undercutting one another with special incentives, but also creates a level playing field for local developers and Building Teams. "The developers and retailers know what's expected, and the communities feel comfortable setting a standard knowing they're not going to get into a bidding war with neighboring communities," he says.

Creating a kit of parts

Some retailers are taking a more positive approach to deal with the influx of local design ordinances. IKEA's latest prototype store, for example, is composed of a "kit of parts" that permits local Building Teams to quickly and cheaply reconfigure the store's design and layout based on the requirements of the local jurisdiction and developer.

"It's an effective way of selling the community a variation of the standard prototype that speaks to the region or local requirements," says Stan Laegreid, principal with Seattle-based Callison, who designed IKEA's prototype store. "The main box remains intact, with four or five different ways of localizing the design and breaking down the scale of the building."

Building Teams can choose from a variety of building materials (brick vs. precast panels, for example) and detail options, and can even add a second entrance or tower element. IKEA will not budge on color, however. "The blue box is sacred to them," says Laegreid.

IKEA's vibrant blue may not fly in Fort Collins, which mandates neutral or earth tones. "If the retailer wants to be here bad enough, they'll make the changes," says Gloss.

Other communities are more compromising in their approach, using the size and design regulations as a bargaining tool to obtain additional concessions from retailers (see related table, p. 29). In Tucson, for instance, if Building Teams work closely with the neighborhood on a big-box project, the mayor and city council will "generally sign off on the plan, even though it does not meet the specific letter of our land-use code," says James Maurer, principal planner with the Department of Urban Planning and Design. Maurer says the biggest obstacle for Building Teams is committing time for the often-lengthy community and city review process.

"It's a big mistake not to involve the immediate neighborhood in any big-box designs," says Thomas Sayler-Brown, principal with Tucson-based Sayler-Brown Bolduc Architects, which has designed three big-box stores under the Tucson ordinance. Sayler-Brown points to a 162,000-sf Lowe's store his firm designed as an example where the design team worked hand-in-hand with the community. "Neighbors desired pedestrian access to the site, so we built a pedestrian bridge over an adjacent drainage canal to provide access to the store from the back," he says. The facility was also detailed on all four sides. "The rear end of these buildings is often an afterthought," says Sayler-Brown, who feels that people who live behind the store should have something more than a blank wall to look at.

From rural sprawl to urban maul

After years of aggressive expansion, many discount big-box retailers may be reaching the point of market saturation. Searching for untapped markets, big-boxers have begun to venture into largely uncharted territory: urban neighborhoods.

"It's definitely not their first choice, but retailers don't have a choice, because the big parcels and best locations are gone," says Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow for retail and entertainment development with the Urban Land Institute. Beyard says big-box retailers are more apt to go with smaller footprints and multi-level configurations to expand into new urban markets.

"Three years ago, it was nearly impossible to convince retailers to stray from their prototypes," says James Bry, project manager with architect/engineer GreenbergFarrow, New York, which recently completed two Home Depot stores in Manhattan. Bry says clients such as Home Depot and Target have relaxed their standards for elements such as store layout, merchandise, and parking ratio to adhere to site constraints.

National retailers generally demand five spaces per 1,000 sf of store space, but in places like New York City, "it's impossible to get the desired amount of parking spaces," says Bry. "In the past, it was tough to convince the retailers that their stores could be successful without all the parking. Now we've just completed two Home Depots that have zero parking."

Both of these stores, which opened late last year, are configured on three floors connected by escalators. The 108,000-sf store on 59th Street is situated in the basement of the 54-story Bloomberg Tower, designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates. The 110,000-sf store on 23rd Street occupies the basement and first two levels of adjoining flatiron landmark buildings, built in 1865. Merchandise is geared more toward apartment dwellers. Items like lumber are available by delivery only.

"Obviously, these projects were major departures from their prototype store," says Navid Maqami, VP of architecture for GreenbergFarrow. He says the store on 23rd Street was especially difficult to design, given the limitations of the existing column grid, floor loads, and minimal support spaces. To accommodate shipping and receiving, the Building Team had to carve out three loading docks. To do so, several tons of terrazzo flooring had to be removed, and essential steam pipes had to be relocated.

Bry says another major hurdle in such projects is meeting the needs of a developer and retail tenant whose views on the project goals may differ. For instance, a developer of a mixed-use tower may not be privy to every requirement for the retail tenant. Likewise, a mega-retailer that's venturing into the city for the first time may not understand the limitations of the existing space.

Common miscalculations, according to Bry: the number of load docks and vertical transportation, the capacity of mechanical systems, and the importance of energy management systems.

"We have to work closely with all parties involved to ensure a project's success," says Bry.

What communities want from big-box retailers

Factor Community requirements
1 Fort Collins, Colo. 2 Overland Park, Kan. 3 Stoughton, Wis. 4 Mt. Horeb, Wis. 5 Calvert County, Md. 6 Madison, Wis. * 7 Sun Prairie, Wis. 8 Sacramento, Calif. * * Proposed ordinances

Square-footage limit 50,000 sf4; 75,000 sf5; 110,000 sf3
Community planning Planning must be compatible with comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans; detailed neighborhood plan required, if one does not exist.3
Impact assessment Impact assessment report required for community impact, transportation impact, and economic and fiscal impact.3 Retailers must obtain demolition bonds before construction to fund demolition of structure if development fails.8
Traffic Direct access to major street required; vehicle access must accommodate peak traffic volumes; connection to adjacent land uses.3
Parking Maximum size restrictions; landscaped, curbed islands and medians; separate distinct parking areas, each no more than 120 stalls.3 No more than 50% located between façade and primary street.6
Pedestrian access Pedestrian walkways from sidewalks to entrances; 10-foot sidewalks adjacent to buildings; landscaping along sidewalks; distinct pedway markings; bike racks; pedestrian furniture (interior and exterior).3 Weather protection requirements.6
Landscaping Requirements for building foundation, street and drives, parking islands, and berms separating residential areas.3 Landscaped areas along no less than 50% of the building's length.1
Lighting Total cut-off luminaries with maximum brightness requirements; light-pole design requirements.3
Building design Ground-floor façades that face public streets shall have arcades, display windows, entry areas, awnings, or other features no less than 60% of horizontal length.1 Complement other buildings in vicinity; varying setbacks, heights, roof treatments, doorways, window openings, etc., to reduce apparent size.3
Building materials High-quality materials on all sides of building (e.g., brick, wood, sandstone, other native stone, or tinted, textured concrete masonry units).1 Smooth-faced concrete block, tilt-up concrete, and prefabricated steel panels prohibited.7
Building color Low-reflective, neutral tones required.1 Restrictions on corporate and trademark colors.3
Building entrance All sides of a principal building that directly face an abutting public street shall have at least one customer entrance.1 Entrances must be clearly defined and highly visible with design features; each additional store in the principal building must have separate exterior customer entrance.2, 3
Building setback Minimum setback for any building façade shall be 35 feet from nearest property line; where the façade faces adjacent residential, an earthen berm no less than 6 feet in height shall be required.1
Signage Guidelines for location, size, color, and use of logos3
Outdoor storage Areas for outdoor storage, truck parking, loading, and trash collection shall not be visible from abutting streets; partially enclosed areas for sale of seasonal inventory must be permanently defined and screened with walls or fences that conform to design of store.1
Outlot buildings Must be comparable in quality to primary buildings.3
Noise Shall not create a nuisance.3