Ban Big Box

[ Preferred option for the proposed new Safeway building in Pinehurst ]

As is clear in the site plan above, the proposed (big pdf) new Safeway in Seattle’s Pinehurst neighborhood is the standard suburban model — a single-use, single-story big box grocery store next to a sea of surface parking. An urban community that possessed a proper understanding and appreciation of sustainability would not let development like this happen.

And get this: as reported previously, the proposed Pinehurst Safeway is being touted as the first “green” Safeway in WA State. Green lipstick on a pig, that is.

But it’s not just Safeway, and it’s not just grocery stores. Any retail store that is so big and so car-oriented has no place in the sustainable urban community of the future. There are so many reasons it’s hard to know where to begin, like when you’re asked to explain what’s wrong with the Bush administration.

The root problem with big box stores is well, their bigness. They are simply way beyond the human scale that makes places comfortable and pleasant to be in. Their size is totally out of proportion with the ideal of the urban village.

Shown below is the streetscape along the 15th Ave Safeway on Capitol Hill (designed by Dykeman, the same firm that is designing the Pinehurst Safeway). When Safeway rebuilt this store, their concession to the neighborhood was to move the store east to front on 15th Ave, and put the surface parking behind. But that was a nearly empty gesture, because beyond the entrance at the south end of the building, the remaining length of the building along 15th Ave — roughly 300 feet — is dead facade. They tried hard to fake a real streetscape, but the lack of vitality and interest on this long stretch of sidewalk is felt by anyone who walks it.

[ The Safeway building’s 300 foot dead facade along 15th Ave on Capitol Hill ]

Another drawback of bigness is that smaller retailers can’t compete. Yet it’s small retail that everyone likes to have in urban villages, and for good reason. Small retail provides the personal connection, visual variety, and unpredictability that make neighborhood centers worth visiting, especially on foot.

Big stores also must draw customers from a relatively large area, which means more — and longer — trips by car. That in itself is bad enough, but this regional draw also sucks customers away from their own neighborhoods, where they could have been supporting their own local small retail. In short, big box is poison to urban villages.

Obviously, big box stores are designed primarily for access by car. In the case of the Pinehurst Safeway, they have gone so far as to propose 200 parking stalls, which is double the amount required by City of Seattle code. Surface parking eats up land that could be used for more human purposes, increases stormwater runoff, and is just plain ugly.

And this emphasis on car access comes at the expense of the pedestrian. All those hundreds of cars have to cross the sidewalk somewhere, creating a safety hazard and annoyance for pedestrians. No one wants to walk across a giant parking lot, and even the sidewalks that run along the edges of parking lots are relatively boring and unpleasant places to walk.

The solution to the big box problem is simple: Ban them. Now just hold on to your “it will never happen” and mark this: Seattle has already done it. Last December, the City passed an ordinance limiting the size of retail uses in industrial zones to 25,000 square feet. Expand that to all zones in Seattle, and you’re done.

There is no denying that big box stores have their merits. But these merits come at social and environmental costs that are not widely recognized, and these costs are rising. And the reason big box businesses thrive is because these costs do not show up on the price tags of their merchandise — the costs are “externalized.”

Under a mandated retail floor area limitation, neither Safeway nor Costco, nor any other retail business would be prohibited from operating in Seattle. They just couldn’t build stores that are too big. And if they couldn’t adjust their business model successfully, so be it. Someone else would apply some American ingenuity and fill the gap.

Ban Big Box!