Are chain stores bad for downtowns?

From The News-Sentinel:

BLOOMINGTON — A task force appointed by Bloomington’s mayor is going to consider steps other than his proposed ban on new chain stores and restaurants to protect the character of the city’s downtown. …

Mayor Mark Kruzan asked task force members in September to start considering chain store restrictions. He has said he wants to protect areas with distinctive business identities.

How can a ban on certain kinds of business ownership save a downtown? Even the most traditional downtowns of the 1950s had chain stores like G.C. Murphy’s and Walgreens.

The mayor should perhaps instead consider The Three Rules of Urban Design for his downtown:

  1. Build to the sidewalk (i.e., property line).
  2. Make the building front “permeable” (i.e., no blank walls).
  3. Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.

It doesn’t matter who owns the store. It matter where the store is located on the site plan. Because nowadays, big chains such as Subway and Starbucks can easily meet these urban standards. The problems arise when stores in an urban area ignore the simple steps above that would make any building a compliment.

Photo by NNECAPA from Flickr

8 Comments

  1. Would you still say it doesn’t matter if an adult business wanted to locate on Main Street, just as long as they were in a storefront built to the sidewalk with a lot of permeability? I would. But I’m curious if you think there’s a difference, and if so, why?

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  2. @John: It seems to me that there’s an argument to be made that chain stores may not be as committed to a location as, say, a locally owned business. That perhaps the chain store may just pick up and leave when sales dip leaving a hole to be filled. So in that case, I would say locally owned businesses are more desirable than chain stores; i.e. it does matter who owns the business.

    On the other hand, it might also be argued that small, locally owned businesses are more pervious to fluctuations in the economy and therefore more likely to be short lived. In that instance, chain stores seem like the more desirable candidate.

    Then there’s the odd middle ground of franchises where the business itself is a chain, but owned by a local operator. I’m not even sure how we might look at their desirability.

    @Scott: And that’s the issue you raise, of desirability. In your example of an adult business, I particularly wouldn’t care if the business was tasteful (many would argue that’s an oxymoron when coupled with adult businesses) and followed all other zoning regulations. I don’t think desirability correlates at all with ownership. For instance, in Fort Wayne we have an apparently ever expanding selection of tattoo parlors, all of which are locally owned. Would one more tattoo parlor be any more or less desirable if it was a tattoo parlor chain?

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  3. @Leo: Chain stores may not be as committed, true. But that’s always been the beauty of traditional urban buildings — one store leaves, and another can take its space.

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  4. Thoughtful downtown design standards are a great way to guide development.

    Picking and choosing WHICH businesses are allowed to exist downtown is a dangerous game.
    Who gets to be the “tastemakers”?
    There is room for both local businesses and chain stores provided they observe those design standards.
    If a local sub shop is better than Subway (usually true), move in next door to Subway and let the customer decide.

    Grand Avenue in St.Paul, MN is one the most vibrant, attractive, and successful streets in the city. The Gap store is next door to a local running apparel/shoe store. Chipotle shares a storefront with a local organic beauty supplier.

    I don’t think Fort Wayne can afford to be too picky about WHO hangs a shingle downtown provided that shingle conforms to design standards.

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  5. Well, at the risk of saying things which have already been said, when I first went to Jefferson Pointe, the first question I had was – what makes THIS a desrireable place to shop? (similarly, there is a shopping area near Carmel that replicates a city street, with a town square and all)

    And all I can think of is – since it’s private property, that area can be restricted; the PEOPLE who are not wanted – an handlers and vagrants and so on – can be not just run-off, but in fact kept far away.

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  6. I think an effective downtown – or any urban designed environment – needs to have a healthy mix of national and regional chains as well as local mom and pop store. I personally have a preference to the latter two and would desire the mix to lean away from national chains. Local companies make the environment unique and regional chains often give stability and offer a commitment to the community. However, the draw that a national chain brings in cannot be disputed – although again I have my frustrations with them and their impact on local companies. National chains draw in national chains and local companies. interestingly enough, Starbucks enhances coffee culture and actually helps local coffee shops. I don’t know if the same thing can be said about subway and I am sure it is not true about Wal-mart, but it is important to remember that not all national chains are created equal.

    Overall, design needs to be a high consideration. if I a grocery store moves into downtown, but is not conducive to urban design it doesn’t matter if it is a George’s or a Marsh. Also, if new building are built, the should be robust enough to be used by a variety of businesses.

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