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2007-05-19
Fairfax County, VA. Officials Could Reject Stores That Are Too Big

Sprawl-Busters has noted for years that many citizens "hate the box" but love what's inside. Bargain shoppers will ignore the environmental impacts of a huge retail store on the neighborhood and quality of life impacts on the community -- just to buy more cheap Chinese underwear. But unhappiness with the big box prototype, symbolized by the Wal-Mart supercenter, has led to a significant amount of local zoning regulation across the country, designed to make such projects more compatible with surrounding land uses. The Washington Post reports this week that officials in Fairfax County, Virginia are looking for ways to reshape the way large-scale stores are built. According to the Post, officials "are looking at making big-box stores build up instead of out, fit better into existing neighborhoods and leave less of a blemish on the environment -- and the eye." "It isn't to say 'absolutely no' to big boxes," Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, told the newspaper. "It's to say, 'Shouldn't this be subject to review?' Especially as we're looking at revitalization. There may be parts of the county where a big box would completely stymie our efforts to revitalize a particular area." On May 21st, the Board of Supervisors will consider a zoning proposal that would require any retailer of 80,000 s.f. or more to apply to the county before building. The Board of Supervisors would have the legal authority to reject a store considered too large for the neighborhood, or the surrounding road network. Supervisors could ask developers for "less sprawling designs, multistory buildings, parking garages and pedestrian and transit access" before gaining a building permit. The newspaper quotes a representative of the Urban Land Institute as saying, "There is a growing interest in walkability of communities and the viability of communities. They are all concepts that I think are gaining more popularity in terms of how it affects our lives and how it affects our communities' lives." County officials are seeking to promote better design and better use of land, instead of accepting the single-story, flat-roofed, windowless view of big box developers. "What people see as objectionable about big boxes is the single-use, very consuming space that really doesn't address the transportation challenges and doesn't connect with the surrounding neighborhood," County Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins said. "Can you have those same uses in a different footprint?" The Post quotes a major retail developer in the Virginia suburbs as saying, "Every large-sized retailer in America today is focusing on fitting into areas that have a more dense population. They're getting creative in store design. And they're doing it so that they can serve the retail needs of that particular demographic." One County Supervisor explained that residents want shopping variety, but they want the character of their community to. "So the question is: How do you allow those stores, and what are the creative ways of incorporating those stores into communities so they still remain the type of communities that people want to be a part of?"

What you can do: All commercial projects have the potential to create a 'win-win' situation for the developer and for the neighbors -- but only if they work closely together. This is something Wal-Mart has been congenitally incapable of doing. The retailer says it knows what its customers want -- but it doesn't have a clue what its neighbors want. The result has meant years or lost time, and tens of thousands of dollars per site wasted on legal and zoning delays. Trying to force big stores into small spaces has been a financial mistake for companies like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target and Lowe's. Such a "clash of cultures" has pitted the corporate culture against the community culture, and the result is a waste of development dollars and lost sales. In 2006, for example, 46 Wal-Mart stores alone were defeated or withdrawn from the review process, according to Sprawl-Busters figures. Fairfax County officials, like those in Montgomery County, Maryland, and in many other communities, are on the right track to rein-in the sprawling projects that redefine communities. Readers are encouraged to contact the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to endorse their big box zoning amendments. Call the Board of Supervisors at 703-324-2321, or email them at: chairman@fairfaxcounty.gov. Tell them: "Lead growth, or it will lead you. Pass the big box ordinance!"










 
 
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