The Opportunity of The Retail Apocalypse

park 1“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone”
~ Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

It was basically a 50’s strip mall that occupied two sides of a square block, with room for plenty of parking in the middle and a gas station on the corner. A restaurant, several retail stores, bowling alley and bar were the long-time occupants. The stores catered mostly to the adjacent residential areas and a commercial building a few blocks away.

Twenty years later it slowly lost out to the new big box mall down the road, and the asphalt in the parking lot began to corrode. One by one the units shifted to establishments that could survive on less traffic or cheaper rents until finally only the bar and bowling alley remained in business. There is at least one of these old shopping centers in almost every neighborhood, sitting vacant and just waiting to be torn down.

Meanwhile, the new big box mall was anchored by a grocery store chain and a Walmart, and various other stores proliferated on the giant lot. Starbucks (of course), a pizza delivery, fast food and a chain restaurant attracted various retail stores like Blockbuster, a big liquor store, more restaurants and others. Today, they’re tearing down the Walmart with the promise of greater things, and many of the small stores are barely hanging on. Rezoned residential along the busy street has allowed various smaller commercial and retail establishments to flourish, gradually draining customers way from the big-box mall.

The nearby ‘regional’ shopping mall has gradually become no more than a vast collection of empty stores. The big department stores that anchored the place and provided lots of traffic for the smaller businesses have gradually gotten smaller or disappeared completely. The outer rim of the 100-acre parking lot that abuts the busy streets serves as a draw for in-and-out customer establishments like convenience stores and fast food places.

It’s a life-cycle thing, customers and businesses come and go, leaving behind, if we’re lucky, a re-purposed building or a lot, but most often a derelict building and degraded asphalt. Now, however, it could get worse quickly. Reporter Abha Bhattarai notes a recent study, “Widespread closures have roiled the retail industry, but many more stores are likely to shut down in coming years to keep up with a shift to online shopping. By 2026, they note, online shopping will make up 25 percent of retail sales, and 75,000 stores will close, including ‘21,000 apparel stores, 10,000 consumer electronics stores and 8,000 home furnishing stores’”.

She continues, “The main reason for the shift, analysts say, is simple: Americans are increasingly shopping on line.” I have also observed that more stores are offering drive-throughs, pick-up service and home delivery. Grocery stores, many restaurants, pharmacies and others are making the trip to the store obsolete and reducing the need for parking.

If we take as a given that the space requirements for much retail is dropping, and we’ve seen the turn-over and abandonment of commercial properties, what is it we as a community want to do with all that empty space? Affordable housing, educational and charity organizations — the community may have specific needs that could be met with that space.

It started as a forest or field or pasture before it was developed, so why couldn’t we just return it to that use?

There are significant community and environmental benefits to green space of almost any kind. Parks and preserved green space are beneficial to mental and physical health, provide recreational opportunities, are good for the environment, and usually increase adjacent property values.

The renewed interest in urban farming also offers an opportunity for reusing those big vacant tracts of land for community farms. With urban air quality on the decline and climate change looming, it may also make sense to create an urban forest, either parklike or as a combined forest and farm. Twilight Greenaway noted, “commercial agroforestry (much of it forest farming for products like mushrooms, goldenseal, ginseng, berries, and timber) is being practiced by small landholders and newer farmers who have limited resources — ‘people who are trying to intensively manage parts of their land so they can intensively produce more food on a small piece of land.’”

Local farming is also good for the local economy. Dan Nosowitz reported, “a dollar spent buying directly from a farmer has about twice the impact on the local economy as spending a dollar on food that goes through a middleman — a supermarket, for example. There are all kinds of reasons for that: Farmers who sell directly to consumers tend to buy more supplies locally, which can benefit seed and equipment sellers in the area; and they also tend to hire more local labor, which in turn benefits in the community.” Farmer’s markets, farm-share, co-ops and other mechanisms can support the local farmers.

Josh Gabbatiss reports on a recent study, “Scientists have established there is room for an additional 1.2 trillion trees to grow in parks, woods and abandoned land across the planet … If such a goal were accomplished, ecologist Dr Thomas Crowther said it would outstrip every other method for tackling climate change – from building wind turbines to vegetarian diets.”

Most jurisdiction currently subsidize new commercial endeavors, sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars. What if instead, we just decided to take those unused properties and convert them, not into another doomed retail experiment, but into something that gave back to the community and maybe the whole planet?

“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em”
~ Joni Mitchell

Who knows, maybe that would work …

Additional information:
Abha Bhattarai, Analysts: 75,000 U.S. Stores are Doomed, The Denver Post, 4/14/19

Josh Gabbatiss, Massive restoration of world’s forests would cancel out a decade of CO2 emissions, analysis suggests, February 16, 2019, The Independent

Twilight Greenaway, The Farm for the Trees, TakePart’s Big Issue, Vol 13,

Dan Nosowitz, Another Reason to Buy Directly From Farmers: You Could Help the Local Economy More, July 28, 2016, Modern Farmer

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