How much easier is it to build a new Chipotle than repurpose a vacant storefront nearby?

Near our suburban house is a shopping center consisting largely of strip malls and several anchor grocery stores. This development constructed in the late 1980s has fallen had hard times in recent years with numerous vacant storefronts.

Thus, it was surprising to see the construction that started last year at the site of a former national chain restaurant in this shopping center. This spot had been vacant for several years. The building came down and a new strip mall is going up. The new commercial space has an easy turn-in off a busy arterial road.

I have heard that it is easier to build a new big box store than to repurpose an old one. For example, numerous grocery stores in the Chicago region sat empty for years. Some big box businesses have moved out of older buildings and reopened in new structures not that far away.

The new Chipotle building will certainly be geared toward exactly what this business needs. Additionally, there will be at least one new storefront next to the restaurant. The old building had a different layout inside, one more fitting for a sit-down restaurant, and with on additional commercial space.

At the same time, how many strip malls, shopping malls, big box stores, and restaurants are torn down each year because the space they have is not exactly what a different business wants? What happens to all of these materials? How much time goes into tearing down? How substantially are these shopping areas changed by adding a few new buildings here and there? This Chipotle could have moved into a vacant property within the shopping center.

I could imagine more modular structures or incentives for reusing buildings or asking businesses to adapt to existing spaces. But, if it is cheaper or more efficient to tear down one building and redevelop another, then that is what businesses will do.

Historic preservation of a strip mall and parking lot

Benjamin Ross in Dead End retells the story of a historic preservation movement to save a Washington D.C. strip mall:

It fell to a suburb-like section of Washington, DC, to test the limits of historic preservation. In 1981, the new Metro reached Cleveland Park. Riders entered down a stairway alongside the parking lot of a fifty-year-old strip mall. The owners of Sam’s Park and Shop wanted to replace it with a larger, more urban structure. But the wealthy and influential homeowners who lived nearby liked things as they were – the neighborhood had led the successful fight against freeways two decades earlier – and they didn’t want any new construction. Tersh Boasberg, the local leader, told the Washington Post that “the central question is, ‘Can an urban neighborhood control what happens to it, or is development inevitable?”…

Sam’s Park and Shop, its neighbors thus proclaimed, deserved protection as a pioneering example of strip-mall architecture. But for the historic designation to succeed in blocking new construction, it wasn’t enough for the store building to remain intact. The parking lot had to be saved as well.

The residents’ base was not an easy one to make. In front of the original Park and Shop were a gas station and a car wash (an “automotive laundry” in the preservationists’ inflated prose), later town down to make room for more parked cars. Nearby stores were built in a hodgepodge of styles, without parking of their own…

It was a long way from landmarks to human and appealing places to shop, but in 1986 the fight for the parking lot ended in victory. (p.93)

A fascinating story that illustrates the power of NIMBYism and local control. Generally, those opposed to sprawl really dislike parking lots: they are only filled at certain hours of the day (usually during business hours), often are too large (though parking at a mass transit stop may be for the larger good), they are ugly, and their surfaces encourage water runoff. Yet, in the right setting, this parking lot was viewed as a better alternative than denser construction. (And the stated concerns about such construction might have been about traffic and safety but it often involves social class and status connected to denser development.)

Answering suburban critiques by firing back at educated urban elites

After one professor suggests strip malls are closely tied to the ills of global capitalism, one conservative’s response is to fire back at urban, educated elites:

Because Deneen cannot wring meaning from big-box stores and six-lane roads, we are meant to assume that no one can. But this elision of any distinction between personal aesthetic preferences and objective universal laws is as empirically false as it is politically problematic. As a happy son of the suburban Midwest, I can personally attest that plenty of good people have little difficulty finding much to worship and be thankful for, no matter what they drive or where their kids’ toys were constructed.

Erudite, comfortable people are always so bemused that middle-income Americans could possibly opt for a suburban life of cars, backyards, and affordable goods. The alternative, of course, is an urban life spent waiting for buses and watching the erudite, comfortable people enjoy boutique brunches that they will never be able to sample. For millions of our brothers and sisters without PhDs, the parking lots and mini-malls that Deneen dismisses are sites of real grace and meaning. They are places where paychecks are earned, conversations are shared, and the sanctification of even mundane work can transpire.

While there are some interesting conversations to have about how spaces shape social life (think of the differences between the strip mall and the urban street with mixed uses), this particular response simply falls into an argument pattern that has been around at least 60 years. When a critic attacks the suburbs, someone is bound to respond that middle Americans seem to like the suburbs and the pretentious of the elites prevents them from seeing the good side of suburbs. And, this often devolves into name-calling and generalizations, elites versus average Americans, city dwellers against suburbanites, about morality and community life. Does this get anybody anywhere?

In other words, this is nothing new.

Opposing gentrified suburban strip malls in order to give immigrants and others cheaper business opportunities

Plenty of suburban critics detest strip malls for their ugliness, auto-dependence, and effect on traditional shopping districts. But, Kaid Benfield argues they may need to be protected from gentrifiers as they offer cheap real estate that can be taken advantage of by immigrants and others.

And yet:  As these properties have declined, so have their rents, making them affordable to small, often entrepreneurial businesses.  Particularly as immigrants have settled in inner suburbs (where many of these fading commercial strips are), businesses owned and patronized by the immigrant population have occupied many of these spaces, in some cases alongside small start-ups owned by longtime community residents as well.

The risk is that, as we reshape these old properties with new buildings and concepts, the replacement properties will be much more valuable than their predecessors; indeed, that’s why new development is appealing to investors and how it is made possible.  Overall, that’s a good thing.  But small businesses either go under, unable to afford new rents, or relocate as a result.  The logical place to relocate in many cases will be vacant storefronts in other strip malls in locations less attractive to the businesses’ clienteles.  What to do?…

According to Ritchey’s article, Asheville’s strip malls offer a setting for synergies to develop and help connect entreprenurial businesses to each other:  for example, establishments offering diverse but complementary products and services can share a customer base, trade ideas, and cross-promote.  This strikes me as analogous in some ways to synergies available to start-ups in more urban “business incubators.”

It makes a lot of sense to me and, in many parts of the country, it is newer Americans who are benefitting the most from these opportunities.  For them, a successful business in a strip mall is the American Dream at work.  Three years ago, Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) and I wrote separate articles about a sort of organic economic revitalization being initiated by immigrants within the existing fabric of our older suburbs.

Interesting argument. Three quick thoughts:

1. Does this mean strip malls might be viewed differently in the future by suburban critics? While they might prefer strip malls are not built in the first place, this does seem like a good use of resources.

2. When people argue that small businesses are really important to the American economy, how many of these small businesses are in strip malls? Could the humble strip mall be one of the backbones of the American economy?

3. This is tied to larger issues about redevelopment in mature suburbs. In American metropolitan areas, many suburbs are built-out and have no large land parcels for new development. There is a lot of potential then for utilizing existing structures or knocking them down and doing something new. If people don’t like strip malls, what would replace them? How much density are suburban residents willing to accept in their neighborhoods or nearby?

Economist argues best restaurants often in “dumpier locales”

Over at the Atlantic, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen explains why excellent restaurants consistently appear in the “cultural wasteland” of suburbs:

Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values…..

I love exploring the suburbs for first-rate ethnic food. Many people consider suburbs a cultural wasteland, but I am very happy searching for food in Orange County, California; the area near San Jose; Northern Virginia, near D.C.; Somerville, Massachusetts; and so on….It is especially common to see good ethnic restaurants grouped with mid-level or junky retail outlets. When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly? Poor construction? Broken plastic signage? A five-and-dime store? Maybe an abandoned car? If so, crack a quiet smile, walk through the door, and order. Welcome to the glamorous world of good food.

Cowen’s argument about restaurants reminds me of another Atlantic piece celebrating “low road” buildings which Brian previously discussed.  It’s not surprising that great work–and great food–often happens in low rent locales like “junky” suburban strip malls and office parks given their lower (financial) barriers to entry and lower operating expenses that free up more cash to flow each month into improving their tenants’ business.

Still, it strikes me that the financial health of restaurants is more location-dependent than for many of the business populating “low road” office parks.  Whereas many office-based business are not dependent on high volumes of foot traffic for survival, restaurants almost invariably are.  (Unless, of course, that particular restaurant focuses primarily on a delivery and/or catering business model.)  A less prestigious restaurant location is a good value for the owner (and likely to survive long term) only if the drop-off in foot traffic/customers due to the “bad” location is more than outweighed by lower rent.

Are strip malls at “the end of the road”?

One sociologist argues that while strip malls have seen much better days, they can be transformed in ways that they can once again be beneficial:

Strip malls — once anchors of postwar North American suburban neighbourhoods — are doomed, with thousands across Canada and the United States already derelict and eyed by land developers.

But at least one Canadian academic sees value in maintaining the ubiquitous local retailing plazas, and has amassed proposals such as adding community gardens or toboggan slides, or morphing them into giant bee hives or parking lots for food caravans.

“Strip malls were once the economic hubs of new suburbs,” said Rob Shields, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who received a government grant to rethink strip malls to benefit communities around them…

More than 11 per cent of strip malls in North America are derelict, representing 27 million square metres of vacant retail space, according to the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

You can see some ideas generated for “reinventing the strip mall” here. This sounds like it fits into a larger idea, retrofitting, where developers and planners take “failed” projects, such as strip malls or big box stores, and design more sustainable, more urban places.

A few more thoughts:

1. If the strip mall is indeed in inevitable decline, I wonder if anyone is tracking what happens to all of the old strip malls. Is there a common use for them or more frequent uses? Will a majority simply be demolished and replaced with something more profitable?

2. It would also be interesting to hear how suburbanites themselves perceive the decline of strip malls – do they prefer “power centers” or is there something lost when strip malls disappear? Perhaps many won’t rue the loss of strip malls because of their very functional design but there may be more who don’t like the disappearance of some of the businesses, like Radio Shack, that once thrived in strip mall size settings.

3. Are strip malls excellent places for small businesses to start and thrive? Perhaps they are not used in this way but I was trying to think of commercial uses that might be particularly suited to a strip mall.

Residents in Chicago suburb of Palatine oppose proposed Starbucks

For suburban communities, the arrival of a Starbucks can be seen as a sign that the suburb has the ability to attract national stores. But some residents in suburban Palatine are opposed to a proposed Starbucks:

The Palatine village council Monday referred the proposal back to the Zoning Board of Appeals on the village attorney’s advice so that it can review the results of a traffic study despite its earlier unanimous vote to recommend the project. The postponement also grants a request by McDonald’s Corp., which operates an adjacent restaurant, the opportunity to look the study over.

The Starbucks would make up one of three tenant spaces to be built on a vacant lot between the fast-food restaurant and Harris Bank on Northwest Highway near Smith Road. Charley’s Grilled Subs would fill the second space with the third still undetermined.

A couple dozen residents attended the council meeting to oppose the national coffee chain, which they believe will ultimately force nearby Norma’s Coffee Corner to close.

“We as a town should embrace diversity, and I would hate to see Palatine become a national franchise town if there are no mom-and-pops around,” Roman Golash of Palatine said.

Four things strike me about this story:

1. Traffic is a common complaint in NIMBY cases. However, this Starbucks would be located near several other chain/strip mall type businesses on an already busy road. Is Starbucks the problem or the type of development that is already there?

2. The residents seem interested in buying local and Starbucks is one of those companies, perhaps along with Walmart, Walgreens, and others, that represent sprawl and big box stores. At the same time, as far as I can tell from Google Maps, Norma’s is also in a strip mall. So are these residents opposed to all national stores in town? Why is Starbucks singled out in particular? This isn’t quite the battle of a long-time downtown business versus the big national chain. While national stores may not be local businesses (unless they are franchises), they can still bring in tax revenue.

3. Diversity equals having a mix of national and local businesses? This doesn’t sound like the traditional definition of diversity which is typically associated with race and perhaps social class. I wonder if suburbanites use these altered definitions of diversity because they really think that racial or class diversity is not really desirable but they think people like to hear about diversity. (To be fair: Palatine is 76.9% white, 10.3% Asian, and 18% Latino.)

4. Some Chicago suburbs are interested in attracting Starbucks and similar businesses to their downtowns in order to bring in more people. For example, the Starbucks that opened in downtown Wheaton in the late 1990s was seen as a sign that Wheaton’s downtown was an important shopping area (and had a wealthy enough demographic to support such a business).

How suburbs dealt with parking meters and related issues

The Infrastructurist has a discussion of whether parking prices in the city should be raised in order to encourage less driving and therefore, less congestion.

While this may be an interesting argument, my research into several suburbs showed that they solved this problem without much argument back in the 1950s and 1960s. As suburban downtowns faced more competition from strip malls and large shopping centers, downtown business owners argued that city-owned parking meters were driving away customers. Why would a person go to the trouble of shopping in a suburban downtown when free parking was plentiful at shopping centers? Within a few years, these suburbs removed their parking meters in an effort to improve local business.The possible business gains far outweighed the possibility of some municipal revenues from the parking meters.

When I first encountered these debates, they seemed a bit strange – were people really avoiding suburban downtowns just because of some small parking fee? Even if downtown parking were free, it seems that suburban residents would (and did) tend to choose shopping centers anyway, for reasons that outweighed parking concerns. (Of course, there is a lot of complaining about finding close shopping spaces at the mall – but, at least those spots are free. However, one could make an argument that they are not free as the parking costs get passed along through the business rents and leases and to higher prices for consumers.)

I left reading about these debates thinking that the parking meters were a last straw that suburban downtowns tried desperately to grab at to attract shoppers. Ultimately, many suburban communities were unsuccessful and the parking meters played a limited role.