Sprawl, Under Any Other Name, is Still Sprawl

A big-box retailer wants to open a branch in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville. Supportive politicos say it won’t bring the harm that most chains do, however, because it doesn’t resemble a typical megastore. Richey Piiparinen explains why they’re wrong — and points a finger at the sprawl lobby.

Pfft. Might as well look like this. Flickr user faceless b

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This piece originally ran on Rustwire.

Recently I wrote about the grocery chain Giant Eagle wanting to open up a megastore less than a mile away from an existing store in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville. I argued this type of sprawl development is counteractive for a number of reasons, including its erosion of small business.

Well, the local politicians heard citizen concerns, and they have amended the plans. Good news, right?

Not exactly. What they decided was to make the store even bigger than originally planned, creating a 100,000-square-foot “Market District location” that will be “unique to Strongsville.”

And the uniqueness part, exactly? It’s design. You see, politicians are sensitive to the plight of local businesses. As well, pols get the American psyche’s attraction to “being one’s own boss,” and they have their ear to the rail that the public has become turned off by the old, vapid stretch of big-box strips that don’t exactly harken back to a time when Main Street meant that people walked and people talked and there were actual local businesses around.

The solution, then? Let’s pretend. Said the assistant to the Strongsville mayor:

The front facade will be totally different from other big box stores. It has different heights and sections and looks like different businesses are housed there. It will be very pleasant to look at…

Part of that quote bears repeating because when I read it I lost my coffee. Looks like different businesses are housed there.

Rendering (Source: Rustwire)

Nice. This idea of putting out small businesses and coming up with a design that disguises the eater of small business as a series of small businesses – it’s quite a concept. One that no doubt serves to keep up the illusion that sprawl works, or that pols care about small businesses, for that matter.

In fact the design concept is but one part of a larger, failing economic development strategy in Ohio that can be mottoed as thus: Who you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

Now, why do we keep up with the illusion? Especially when the reality is a stagnant region with little-to-no job growth, and a concomitant infrastructure footprint that has become so unsustainable that Ohio Department of Transportation recently announced that Cleveland’s Innerbelt Bridge—the connection between New York and Chicago—will have to remain weak-kneed at the risk of Minneapolis 2.0 despite assurances that the bridge plan was funded in totality.

Innerbelt Bridge (Source: Rustwire)

Part of the reason for this—in a few words—is the sprawl lobby.

The sprawl lobby is real, and it’s powerful not only in Ohio but everywhere. It largely represents road and home construction companies, developers and home builder associations with deep pockets, and in the case of Ohio is tied to the farm lobby. Yes, the farm lobby has been fighting for farmer’s rights for generations, which means in the current context a refusal to allow agricultural zoning to occur as it would deflect from potential windfalls if and when the farmer decides to get out of the milking cow business.

In all, the old slash-and-build model is entrenched in state legislatures and local municipalities, and it will stay there until a smart growth lobby emerges or the country collapses from its intrinsic weakness occurring from the predatory growth of its fringe.

Now, back to politics, or more specifically: The bind that heavily conservative pols such as those in Strongsville put themselves in by catering to the sprawl lobby at the expense of their constituent’s stated principles – you know, the economic manifest destiny that is the small business owner; the optics of traditional America like the small town feel; and that right to work for a respectable living wage.

It is a predicament for these communities, no doubt. Re-enter the pretending, then, if only to make the dissonance more palatable. More exactly, when arguing for a big tenant that will be bad for local business and the small town aesthetic, the Strongsvilles of the world will often turn to the tenant’s marketing arm to sell the message: We can give you what you want if not what you need. In the case of the proposed Market District it is the want for the “food experience.” From the Giant Eagle website:

Each Market District® location buzzes with a sense of excitement uniquely its own and no two stores are exactly alike. Whichever location you visit, you are sure to have an amazing food experience. Enter our foodie destination and let all of our best food ideas and discoveries delight and inspire the food lover in you.

Echoing, Giant Eagle marketing manager Daniel Donovan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The site is currently being considered for our first ground up Giant Eagle Market District in Northeast Ohio, a store concept geared toward food enthusiasts, offering a wide assortment of unique items in an environment where a passion for food can be nurtured.

The temptation of that old American food fetish. The ease of telling oneself the big-box conglomerate is just an old-school block of small business. Illusion versus principle.

At least it is a tough call these days. Wrote Cleveland.com commenter Strongmom about the upcoming rezoning vote that can in fact block the proposed Market District:

Oh, you guys had to go and make this hard, eh? I was leaning toward a no vote because I think the shopping should stay toward the center of town. But Market District? Really? I am familiar with the concept store in Pittsburgh. If it’s like that then it would be a huge asset to this community. But really… I do think the shopping should stay central in the city. decisions…. decisions…

In the end, perhaps the crux of this country’s problems is the pretending we still have choices when we really do not.

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Tags: built environmentclevelandretailsuburbssprawl

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