In 2012, 77 arsons plagued a small, rural community on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Over the span of five months, Accomack County residents and firefighters could not pin down the culprit, who was widely suspected to be a member of their community.
In the suburbs, a Walmart or Target or Best Buy typically sits on a vast swath of land with aisle after aisle of parking outside the front door. But in the last decade, big box retailers have been moving into cities like the District of Columbia, where space is tighter and parking is limited. We explore the design challenges facing big box stores in urban settings and ask how their arrival changes the look and feel of their new neighborhoods.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's not secret that traditional suburban shopping malls are going the way of the Dodo bird. They've long given way to town center-style retail, little splashes of urbanism that bring downtown style to places far outside the city limits. But in recent years, a new trend has developed in the Washington region. The big box retailers more closely associated with the suburbs are making their way into the city itself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA Target is smack dab in the middle of Columbia Heights. The District's first Costco opened late last year, and Wal-Mart is already building inside the city. But the design challenges of bringing the big box model into the urban setting are formidable, especially as open space dwindles and shoppers shift away from car-centric cultures. Roger Lewis is still in studio with us.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is an architect and the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think the designs of big box stores are compatible with urban areas purely from an aesthetic perspective? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Roger, the big box store typically conjures up images that are quintessentially suburban: massive buildings, sprawling parking lots.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut during the past several years, we've been seeing big chains take their big box models inward into cities often in dense neighborhoods. What would you say are the fundamental challenges big box stores face from a design perspective when they set out to open stores in urban settings? What was, for instance, the DC USA complex up against when it came into Columbia Heights?
MR. ROGER LEWISWell, we'll start with the two Bs, big box.
LEWISSo right away, you're in trouble because, of course, what I think most people appreciate in cities is -- are streets lined by shops, with lots of windows and doors and what we refer to as porosity along the sidewalk. And, you know, the big box seems to be totally antithetical to that. And I do remember a few years ago, some of us just may remember -- I believe this was in the '80s or '90s -- when there was a proposal, in fact, to build a big box in downtown D.C. near Tech World in that area.
LEWISI can't remember the exact site. That didn't do very far. That was the proverbial lead balloon. The problem is that -- or the challenge from an architectural point view and then study point of view is, how do you take one of these -- the suburban model? These stores are huge. Their floor area can be an acre and a half or two.
LEWISThey generally are surrounded by many acres of parking, so you have the problem of transportation, getting people there, and some of them will come in by car. What do you do with them where you don't have these parking lots, and how do you make the box? How do you humanize the box? How do you urbanize the box so that it is no longer this blank box that is essentially what the retail formula used to call for?
LEWISI think we see some strategies already. We see that in -- we see, for example, what -- the transformation of the old Sears store on Wisconsin Avenue which is now a Best Buy. They cut some windows into it so you can actually see a little bit what's inside. And on top of it is housing, and underneath it is a Metro station. Columbia Heights, you mentioned, is, I think, a good example where there is a two-story Target, and that Target store is big. I mean, I think we've both been in there several times.
LEWISI've parked many times in the garage which, by the way, has never been full.
LEWISNever been full, the underground garage. But essentially, it's a building of the type they've built for years in other countries, which is almost like a giant department store building, except it's mini -- it's a condominium. There's a Target. There's -- there are two or three other stores. I can remember all the stores.
NNAMDII think there's a Best Buy there, too.
LEWISI think, yeah, that's one of them. I think that's part of the way to do it is to not just isolate or build a big box by itself sitting there without any connection to other -- or relationship with other retail destinations. I think the -- I think people are more used to doing what they've done always in department stores which is willingly go from one floor to another to do the shopping.
LEWISI mean, I think that Target, again, one -- the Columbia Heights' Target is a good example. So it's -- they not only have a two-story big box, but you can push the buggies onto the escalators in this store. Those who haven't been there should go see it. You can -- it's very easy to shop there, even though it's two stories, and the same thing is happening even in supermarkets.
LEWISSo I think there's some supermarkets now that are two levels sitting over garages -- below grade garages. So I think the model is changing. I think what the big-box retailers have realized is they can't use the suburban formula anymore. You can't do what you did out there. You have to come in and make an urban building.
NNAMDITo what degree is the big-box model dependent on the car? Because since you mentioned DC USA and Columbia Heights, there's always available parking there because the parking lot is never full because the notion was, I guess, similar to the notion of when big-box stores were in the suburbs that most people who come there would be driving.
LEWISWell, the assumption -- they made the wrong assumption.
NNAMDIThey got a Metro across the street.
LEWISYeah. I mean, I think -- and I think a lot of people actually do walk and use Metro to come there. This may change eventually, but right now, they've overbuilt the underground parking. There's more parking space than they needed. This -- these days, figuring out how much parking you need, this is a very current challenge we're facing here in the city as we -- as the city rights zoning ordinance, you know, is what should we require or not require vis-a-vis parking spaces.
LEWISI think there will always be a need for some parking in association with the big-boxes, no matter where they are. The challenge is to try and figure out the split. How many people are going to come in a car versus how many people are going to come by other means to the -- to do the shopping? And I don't -- I think it is still an intelligent guess when you sit down and pick that number because it's -- there is no magic formula.
LEWISAnd I don't think -- with -- I know with Wal-Mart under construction now in Georgia Avenue, that's essentially -- that's a kind of modified suburban model. So it's still a big store with some surface -- I can't remember the exact split there. I think there's some structured parking. I'm not sure. But in any event, that's sort of -- that's not downtown, but that's also not a way out in exurbia. It'll be interesting to see who that store operates.
NNAMDIThose of us who've been living here a long time, remember when there was a Hechingers in that location on Georgia Avenue. You can call us on 800-433-8850. We're talking about big box stores going urban with Roger Lewis. Do you live in Columbia Heights or have you lived in an urban area anywhere else where big box stores have step up shop? How did they affect the dynamics of your neighborhood? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou can send us a text -- a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Roger, not all big box stores are created equal. You have written time and again that from an architectural perspective, it's quite possible to build a better box. Let's start from the bottom. Why do you feel the bottom 30 feet of a building are so crucial, whether we're taking about a massive retail complex or a big mixed-use building?
LEWISWell, I think that we have always appreciated -- we people have always appreciated walking along streets. This is predicated on the notion of walkability as a virtue, that this is something that we want to create in cities and suburbs, in part, to get people out of their cars. So we don't need as many parking spaces.
LEWISI think that the streets that most people enjoy walking along or even driving down our streets in which there is, as I said earlier, a lot of porosity along the facades of buildings, lining the streets in sidewalks so that there is -- that porosity does several things. It allows you to see what's going on behind the facade. It throws light out onto the street after the sun goes down. It puts eyes on the street which is a safety -- contributes to safety and security.
LEWISPeople sense that there are people in there that can look out just as we can look in. I think we've said many times, people enjoy walking in places like Paris or London or New York or San Francisco or, for that matter, many places now in Washington where streets are like that where there is -- and where there's a multiplicity of openings, in other words, that's the precocity notion. So I think that all of that's doable with a box. I mean, you know, you can make a department store.
LEWISI think of some of the great old department stores that I remember in -- seeing when I first went to New York, and they're not opaque, blank walls at the sidewalk. You know, the retailer wants you to see what they're selling. Usually, they were picture windows that you couldn't see into the store. But even now, there's some where you can into the store. I think that's one thing that is a virtue.
NNAMDIWell, is it by design that most big boxes are relatively windowless structures? Is it a matter of cost?
LEWISWell, it's not cost, no. The way they were designed -- the way in the suburbs they are designed is that they want the perimeter -- inside the building, all the back-of-house stuff that you need to ++ you know, the storage rooms, it's -- that was always put on the perimeter, you know, where they didn't really want openings.
LEWISAnd the notion was to get you inside and then everything was surrounded by merchandise when you're inside. And they -- I think the thinking may have even been we don't want you looking outside. You know, we don't want you to worry about whether it's morning, noon or night. It's sort of like the casino concept.
NNAMDICasinos, yes. The casino effect.
LEWISBut I think that's the way things used to be. I think now retailers realize that they want people to see what's going on and to be drawn into these places. Plus, on the street-sidewalk level, I think more and more retailers are -- big-box retailers realize that there are things that are -- that promote activity and people coming in such as eateries and coffee shops and nursery, you know, places to sell flowers.
LEWISI mean, they're -- what they're doing, and I think Wal-Mart is figuring this out, is that by making that perimeter at the sidewalk level porous and animated and activated and light-giving and so forth, it actually enhances sales. It doesn't -- so the model is changing.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you ever been to a big box that offered you what you would consider a decent recreational experience? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com. What do you expect from a recreational standpoint when you go shopping, or is it purely just a matter of convenience when you go there?
NNAMDIBefore, Roger, people were going to these big box stores at the suburbs, it seems, mainly for convenience unless, for some reason, their idea of a good time is eating meatballs at IKEA. But when these stores now transition to the urban environment, I guess they feel the need, the pressure to give people more pleasure out of the trip than simply going into the store and walking back out again.
LEWISThat -- I mean, I think, you've summarized it very well. The other thing that I believe some of the big box retailers are looking at, thinking about is what I would call, if I can use a biological term, symbiosis between their store and other retail and commercial activities that might actually be in orbit around the store, next to the store. You know, the big boxes were often anchors of shopping centers.
LEWISThey were, you know, they put a Sears at one end and they put a Macy's at the other, and then there was a concourse between them with -- lined by little stores. That was a form that worked because the notion was that big boxes anchor the ends. People wanted to come and do some department store shopping, but they would inevitably walk along the street in those cases, internal concourses inside the building.
LEWISThat, of course, is now being turned inside out. We're doing that, as you said, at the top of the show, making places that are like cities. But that's what we can do in cities with big boxes. I mean, they can -- they -- what I would like to see is I'd like to see a Wal-Mart or a Costco or a Target that is integrated, in fact, that's part of a neighborhood that has a lot of other destinations besides the big box. And I think that does everybody -- that's a win-win for everybody, I think.
NNAMDIThat was the concern when they started conceiving of DC USA. But so far, it seems to have worked into precisely the kind of neighborhood that you described. Here now is Davin (sp?) in Rockville, Md. Davin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVINThanks, Kojo, and hi to Roger Lewis. I want to say, I said to your producer as well, I love it when Roger is on the show.
DAVINI was just thinking the same thing. I actually am a building engineer but, you know, I see a lot of stuff going on. And I remember when Wheaton Plaza was an outside shopping center. But I thought -- I was thinking the same thing about when you were saying downtown big-box stores. What about the option of them maybe not even having their eateries and stuff, but if they lease out the front 30 foot of, you know, if they took a block and they leased out the front 30, 60 feet smaller shops so you had destinations and you had places to go, restaurants, little, you know?
DAVINAnd I know would cut into some of their business model, but it would certainly make things livelier and then you could be drawn into the shop, you know, that way rather than -- I mean, that does sound like a reasonable way to go? I just, you know, I see this new little downtowns popping up everywhere, and I'm wondering, you know, I remember the old shopping stores, you know, department stores downtown and everything is well. But I just thought that would be an option for them to go downtown.
NNAMDIOK, Davin. Here's Roger.
LEWISWell, Davin, as you were speaking, I quickly sketched your concept, you know, which is -- could be a very viable way to do things. I suspect it's been done. I'm trying to think if I've seen something like that. That is where there is a large box inside the block lined. You need more than 30 feet of depth. You'd probably needed more like 60 feet of depth around the perimeter, which could be a bunch of small shops. It's sort of an inversion of the old suburban formula. It certainly could work.
LEWISI think the -- there is -- I think that may exist in places by default as opposed to having actually been designed by somebody and developed from the outset as that model. But that's -- that is a model that could work because one can imagine -- in effect, it's taking the courtyard concept. You know, you have this ring around the perimeter at the block of the small cellular retailers, and then the courtyard at the middle, instead of it being a courtyard, you put a roof over it, and you got a big box, very viable.
NNAMDIDavin, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think large retailers could do to make the designs of their stores more customer-friendly? Do you think it's possible to, in effect, build a better box? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send us a tweet at @kojoshow.
NNAMDIAn update on the water situation on Prince George's County at a noontime press conference: The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission CEO, Jerry Johnson, announced that the water crisis had been significantly downgraded. He said that water restrictions will be kept in place for the time being, but the most dire scenario about a five-day period with no water will not happen and that no customers will be left without water. We'll give you more updates as they come during the course of the broadcast. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Roger Lewis joins us to talk about big box stores going urban. He is an architect and the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Let's go directly to Geri (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Geri, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
GERIHi, Kojo. I can only make my comment. And then I have to pick my daughter up some place. I'm going to go off.
GERIBut we lived in Germany for a couple of years, and it seems that all the German big boxes, you know, the Wal-Marts of Germany, when you first walk there, there's kind of a covered area in the front. And they always had, like, a key maker, a cobbler, and they always had the food stands. So you could buy a bratwurst.
GERIYou could get a doner, which is like a shawarma, like a sandwich. They always had these food stands. And I always thought that was great because I'd go shopping, on the way out, I could do an errand, and I could grab a hotdog if I'm starving. And that was definitely something that drew people in. Then people would actually sit out front and eat their hotdog and chat.
NNAMDII got to tell you, Geri, it's my feeling that you can never go wrong with the key maker and the clock and watch repair operation 'cause people are also looking for those. Roger.
LEWISWell, she -- Geri's -- thanks for your call, Geri. I mean, it points out that when we visit other cultures and countries, you will see very different configurations and strategies for selling things. Although, I think the big box, the power centers we have here are pretty unique in the United States or they have been. I think they are starting to appear in other countries, particularly in Europe.
LEWISBut I think you make a very good point. The sort of improvisational potential around a big box, I mean, I think the previous call from Davin is getting at that. You know, why not have these places designed in a way so that spontaneity -- retail spontaneity can occur and especially with convenience retail, things that we don't always find in our immediate neighborhood like a key maker?
NNAMDIThat's right. Here is Arhan (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Arhan, your turn.
ARHANYeah, hi. I live in Fairfax City right within the Fairfax County, fairly close to 495 and Gallows Exit. And recently -- well, it's recent enough, I guess, over the last year, so they've built up this area right by the Gallows and 495, I think the Mosaic District. I think it's very similar to what you've been talking about which is there's Target over there, which is on the second level of this huge building, and there's all kinds of retail stores underneath with a big parking.
ARHANThere's a movie theater across from that. There's a little (word?) more kids to play in. So it has become a great destination. I think it's improved Target's business because everybody goes in to Target and buy a couple of things. I know pretty much from where I live, I mean, we find ourselves going there very often not just to go shop but also because there are restaurants, there are other boutique stores. It's a great place for us to go not just go shopping but to do other things as well.
NNAMDIArhan, you have lead us to the next topic of our conversation that I was about to bring up to Roger and that is the flipside of all of this we're talking about happening in the city is that the suburban retail shopping model is becoming more urban. The traditional suburban shopping mall like Tysons Corner or Montgomery Mall is being replaced by the town center-style complex. What do you see in the future for the big-box style in the suburbs, Roger?
LEWISWell, I think Arnem's -- Arhan -- excuse me -- has defined it very well. I actually know that area. The -- I think that's exactly what's happening. There are increasingly a number of activity destinations -- and I use that instead of just saying retail purposely -- activity destinations where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
LEWISI mean, that's what we're talking about. And when you put enough stuff together, everybody wins. And I think that's true within the city and I think that's true in the inner suburbs, and it's going to be true even for the more distant suburbs as development forces move increasingly toward this model of putting, getting a critical mass of diverse destinations and activities.
NNAMDIUnless, of course, you happen to be David in Arlington, who writes, "Call me crazy, but I like the meatballs at IKEA -- so do my kids. You know what we also love? Costco. We roam the aisles and load up on cheap stuff. And then when we're done, hotdogs for everyone. You heard that right. Costco hotdogs are awesome. I hope my kids never think differently," says David. 800-433-8850 is the number. What do you think large retailers could do to make the designs of their stores more customer-friendly?
NNAMDIRoger, from a planning perspective, where do you see room for big box to grow in the District? The city has a finite amount of space, but Wal-Mart, politics aside, clearly wants to come in and open smaller stores. Costco was already here over in Fort Lincoln, Northeast. Home Depot is here also.
LEWISWell, we know that they've -- we know Wal-Mart has targeted, I think, six sites, three of which I think they're committed to but three of which -- I think in -- over in Wards 7 and 8 -- where there seems to be some question now about whether they're going to continue.
NNAMDIThat's the politics of it since the living wage bill was passed. Yeah.
LEWISYes, yes, yes. Politics/economics.
LEWISI think -- I do think - notwithstanding all the things that Wal-Mart has been accused of and certainly some of them are problems, but -- I think Wal-Mart certainly for a place like Wards 7 and 8 has got to be looked at as a potential catalyst for achieving what it is we just were talking about, which is attracting other retailers, other activities so that, again, the whole is greater than some of the parts. And I, for one -- I have shopped at Wal-Mart. I mean, I don't get there very often, but there's none anywhere near where I live or work.
LEWISSo I think Wal-Mart has something to contribute or, for that matter, the Targets or the Best Buys or the Costcos, if with good design. I mean, I'm -- my focus always is on how do you put all these stuff together so it makes sense urbanistically and aesthetically. So I think -- that would be my answer. I think I like to see them succeed.
NNAMDIDan in Brookland in D.C. Dan, your turn.
DANWell, I just was pointing off of what your guest just said. I live in Northeast, not too far from the Home Depot and Giant complex, and, you know, I think that design is a cautionary tale of, you know, a massive parking lot, just, you know, plopped in the middle of the city. And it's just constantly, you know, bad traffic, kind of snarly -- it was impossible to reach by, you know, by foot as a pedestrian. You know, the walk from the Rhode Island Metro Station to Home Depot is near impossible.
DANAnd so, you know, that may seem very painful about, you know, this other, you know, these developments that are being a little wiser about sort of placing, you know, these businesses. I mean, they're businesses we need. I'm glad that we're getting our income or, you know, that our tax dollars are being spent here in the District. But, you know, that -- for me, that (word?) complex is the massive Giant and the massive Home Depot on either side of this huge parking lot just seems like it wasn't thought out well at all.
LEWISI have to agree. I've been to that Home Depot.
LEWISWell, both Kojo and I know that -- I mean, I couldn't agree more. That -- It's a lost opportunity. That whole site should have been developed, master planned and developed in a completely different way, and it would have been good for the neighborhoods around it. I mean, I think it's unfortunate that -- again, to formally import it into the city, essentially a suburban formula that didn't belong here.
NNAMDITo what degree is the willingness of these -- And, Dan, thank you for your call -- these big box chains to come into to the city related to the overall pattern of younger people moving in from the suburbs and back into the core of cities to begin with? Is it just since that they're simply just trying to follow where the demographics are going at the national level?
LEWISWell, I think -- no question about it. And it's not just the younger people. It's the -- it's now some of the boomers and the retirees who also have the money to spend in many cases but who want to live -- ready to give up their home and move into the apartment. And they also shop at these places. In fact, some of them work in these places. You know, the -- my understanding is a lot of the people who work in these stores are not just the 19-year-olds. There are some retirees who, in fact, are quite happy to go and work 20 or 30 hours at...
NNAMDIBeing a greeter, yes.
LEWISSo I -- yeah, I think the demographics are always driving the train in retailing. I mean, what retailers do is they look at the geography and they look at the income distribution, and that's how they make decisions. The growth pattern, that's how they make decisions about locations.
NNAMDIIn an urban environment like D.C., where is height going to fit into all of this? A lot of suburban big boxes basically have built around one gigantic retail floor. But do you imagine it could change their business models significantly if they experimented with stores that have floor stacked on floors? I was saying earlier today how I've always regretted the removal of the old Woodward & Lothrop store downtown because I knew that -- what was on the fifth floor, I knew what was on the sixth floor, and I was fine with that.
LEWISWell, people still seem to go into department stores and quite happily shop. I remember being, many years ago, in Japan in the -- I think the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. This was in the late '60s. And my wife and I were in -- we're in something we had never seen in United States, which was -- I don't know -- it must have been a 10-story shopping center. I mean, it was absolutely a vertical building. It was -- it had to have been at least 150 feet high. We're not going to get that, I don't think, in D.C.
LEWISBut I think one could imagine once we -- once people get habituated to a little different way of thinking, I see a reason why you couldn't build a complex, which would work like a department store, where there would be different -- and if there are things there you want to go to and see and do, you know, I'm happy to get an elevator or an escalator to go see them.
NNAMDIHere is Paul in Washington, D.C. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. Good afternoon. I wanted to discuss some of the economics from the merchant's perspective that have changed design because of the way people shop, because of the way things are done. If you take the example of the Home Depot out off Rhode Island versus the Target in Columbia Heights, they're sort of backfilling some of the area of the Home Depot with the residential unit, which -- to point out to the other caller -- has made it much, much easier to walk to the Home Depot from the Metro station.
PAULAnd I do it quite often. But if you look now at how things are being designed -- the new Navy Yard redevelopment, which I think a lot in the city has no idea it's even happening...
PAUL...I was walking in there the other day. And all of the boxes and where the former Navy buildings and from the new structures have all been designed to have the most frontage for each restaurant so you'll have the river and the park views, but you're still using the building to get the most money out of it. And that's the point is that I think that people will finally start realizing design or business people that get the most money out of the situation is often the best for the people as well.
LEWISWell, the -- I think the -- I think if I understand your comment, which is a comment about the economic, the financial motivations for these developments, that's always, in a way, the 800-pound elephant in the room when you're talking any of this stuff. But I think that, again, as we've been saying throughout this broadcast, the -- I think the retailers, the developers -- and not just retail developers but housing developers. As you mentioned, there was some housing there now associated with the Home Depot.
LEWISI mean, I think they are realizing that mixed use, higher densities, things we've been talking about for years on this show is the way we're going to go. And for reasons that have to do with Kojo, your question earlier about where we going to do this, I mean, we can't just keep sprawling out into the landscape. More and more people want to live in urban environments and not in subdivisions. So I think that there is -- and I think we're seeing that there are models and they're -- economically speaking, that make this work.
NNAMDIAnd finally, there is Mark David in Washington. Mark David, you're on the air. Please make your comment or question brief.
MARK DAVIDSure. The subject of this segment has been Shaping The City: Big Box Goes Urban. So I want to bring it back to urban. It seems to me the concept and the definition of big box has been a suburban definition. When big box goes urban, I think we should get rid of the concept and the terminology of big box. And the primary example I can use is Columbia Heights. Now, in Columbia Heights, you've got a building that's a block long.
MARK DAVIDThere are four magnet stores. There's Marshalls, there's Target, there's Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy. All of them except Marshalls, which is located in the back of the first floor, around the second floor. The first floor -- that is the street level outside -- are all retail establishments with glass fronts. They have restaurants, they have Radio Shack...
NNAMDIAs I said, we're running out of time very rapidly, Mark David, but you're underscoring a point that Roger has been frequently making on this broadcast.
LEWISYeah. I mean, I think it was the first one I made, the two Bs. Big and box, those are the problems. And I think what Mark is agreeing with that that we got to get rid of the big box.
NNAMDIAnd recalibrate the whole concept. Mark David, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Roger Lewis is an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, thank you for joining us.
LEWISAnd thank you very much for inviting me.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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