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When Chains Break

Once Pandora's big box opens in Carytown, there may be no closing it.

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My Aunt Mickey worked for many years in the rather drab brick building that stands at the corner of Nansemond and Ellwood avenues, when the edifice was known as “the telephone company.” It's always been a boring building, but it possesses a certain dignified stodginess of institutions that never vanish: a post office, a police precinct, a fire station, a hospital. Even under the try-to-be-hip-and-fail monopoly of Verizon, the old bricks seemed eternal.

Now that building, little changed since the 1960s, may be knocked down to make way for big-box development right on the borders of Carytown and the west of the Boulevard neighborhood. The city will have to approve a zoning variance to bring such development to the parcels. I couldn't care less about the building, but I — and many other neighbors — care a great deal about what might replace it.

A suburban-style shopping center with national chains would be a horrible idea for the area and, as I'll show, for city tax coffers. While the “no big box” signs go up around the city, let's consider the likely outcomes of letting City Council's appointed Planning Commission open this particular Pandora's box.

Americans like capitalism, and many of us love it “free and unfettered” by rules such as zoning and environmental regulations. I cannot change the hearts of such libertarians, but I can appeal to their love of profits because I share that weakness. Big-box stores in Carytown would, in the short run, add tax revenues to the city. In the longer term, however, such companies can legally underprice locally owned competitors, because the playing field of American capitalism permits it. Big guys can, and do, build a block away from popular locals and usually run them out of business. The success of companies such as Lowe's and Barnes & Noble has been built on this dubious practice.

When a local business closes, its tax revenue vanishes along with jobs that often pay more than do the replacements. That might just be tough luck to the free-market zealots, but consider what happens when a national company with hundreds or thousands of stores goes into Chapter 11, then liquidation. No matter how profitable an individual location, the company closes them all. We see the process in Richmond's suburban strips, where many shopping centers feature for-lease signs where chains folded.

So if, say, Whole Foods Market were to destroy Ellwood Thompson's Local Market, and then Whole Foods were to suffer in a future downturn and close its doors, the city would be left with two boarded-up businesses. Whole Foods, a rumored tenant of the new shopping center, has suffered in this recession. While the chain's profits rebounded this year, will that continue?

Rarely have local businesses returned when a big boy goes under. Sure, Wal-Mart eventually built where Ward's, then Home Quarters, and Lord-knows-what-else was at the corner of Parham and Quioccasin roads. But no local owners could find traction there, as they have done in Carytown.

Moreover, chains rarely invest as heavily in the locality as do local merchants. While Whole Foods has made an admirable effort at its Short Pump store to source honey from local beekeepers and to purchase from local farmers, I doubt it would offer as many classes, sponsor as many local events, or open a community garden just down the street, as Ellwood Thompson's has done.

Though I personally shun all chains when I can, fighting off big-box commerce is not about outright refusal for many opponents like me. I'm happy to buy lumber from both Home Depot and Siewers, depending on the project I'm doing. I get power tools from Pleasant's as well as Lowe's. I'm lucky to have a Kroger grocery store a block and a half from me for, among other things, a decent beer selection. The city has a lot of chains and I wish them well, but they've built so far in locations dictated by wise planning: Kroger's in place of Safeway International; Lowe's downtown in place of Pantry Pride.

The city's master plan calls for mixed residential and commercial zoning on the parcels where Verizon stands. This type of new-urbanist sensibility works well in the current context of Carytown: not more surface parking but more infill and infrastructure-friendly development to pedestrians who walk or drive, park and shop. Many big-box stores are destinations in themselves, which is fine in a place that is no place: the suburban strip. In a community, however, new development needs to respect the history and commercial potentials of residents and merchants.

If new chain stores wish to invest in the city, we should welcome them to the Boulevard and West Broad Street. On the Boulevard we have a new minor-league baseball team, a set of restaurants and other businesses starting along a revived corridor, and zoning more amenable to the sort of one-size-fits-all designs favored by national chains.

Y'all come, and we'll shop.

I'm confident we'll fight off the latest threat to Carytown's unique mix of upscale and funky, locally owned businesses. Bev's Homemade Ice Cream outlasted two tries by Ben and Jerry's to put it under. This time, however, more than our favorite ice-cream parlor is at stake. Once Pandora's big box opens in Carytown, there may be no closing it.  Let's hope that our Planning Commission members will vote on this correctly, because many voters are watching them. We'll ask tough questions of the mayor and City Council about this, and we'll be at council meetings to discuss this issue, at length and with some passion.

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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