The city of College Station is trying to deal with the shells of vacated big boxes. This is not an unexpected problem that had not been predicted. In fact, the possibility of long term vacancies is just one of the many liabilities of box boxes that cities were warned about. It is no small irony that the person whose job it is to try to solve this problem was, for many years, a lobbyist for poor development decisions in College Station. How many of these shells did she advocate for in the past?
There are lessons to be learned about the nearly fifty-year growth of big boxes on the American suburban landscape.
1. It is not about ‘highest and best use.’ We still hear this epitome of greedy development bandied about even by some current College Station City Council members. This was the justification for retail at any size, the bigger the better. The expression ‘highest and best use’ boils down to what will generate the most revenue, usually for a single business. Often the expression is used to justify tax abatements. While important, the generation of revenue in our city is not the sole function of our city. It is just as feasibly to argues that ‘highest and best use’ should only apply to quality of life and therefor all zoning should only for parks and other community assets. These arguments are equally silly.
2. Big boxes meant the demise of large numbers of our locally owned businesses. Ironically, to the short-sighted claim of highest and best use this meant the loss of a significant amount of revenue. Big boxes export most of their executive and professional level jobs to their home office. Seldom are local attorneys, accountants, human resources or marketers hired by the big boxes placed here.
3. Big boxes meant increased traffic. Because big boxes serve larger areas, people must drive further to get to them. Some big boxes are so large that they obstruct the ability to connect streets reducing connectivity causes congestion and increased traffic. All of this causes increased road costs. Often for businesses that got tax abatements.
4. Big boxes reduce the walkability and bikeability. With their sea of parking and huge buildings, big boxes create traffic patterns and large voids that make walkability and bikeability very difficult.
5. Big boxes pose a significant environmental burden. This is more than the increased fuel consumption and the accompanying greenhouse gasses. Their sea of concrete parking lots create polluted run-off. Reducing permeable land and consolidating run-off causes flooding. The parking lots and roof tops create what are called a heat island. That is a massive unshaded thermal mass that stores the heat of the sun causing urban temperatures to go up.
What can learn from the hulking shells of vacant big boxes in College Station? That our city is a complex and intricate set of moving parts, needs and aspirations. We must be wise to simplistic answers such as “highest and best use.” We must consider a wide range of needs including revenue across the city and across time, as well as quality of life issues such as walkability, bikeability, traffic and a reduction of pollution.