Somewhere the famed 18th century economist Adam Smith is marveling at the size, scope and economic prowess of large-scale retail, or “big box” stores, where the shopping experience is reduced to its simplest form — a cart and a plethora of inventory for your purchasing pleasure.
This simplicity is imbued in the monolithic architecture and wanly colored facades of stores that can be three times the size of a traditional grocery store, while drawing the ire of residents living in the community.
In response to the request of Mayor Darwin Hindman and the City Council, the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission will meet today to consider possible guidelines calling on stores to dress up their drab exteriors to better fit Columbia’s “community character.”
“You can’t avoid them being conspicuous; they’re going to stand out,” Hindman said. “But, you can try to make them more attractive architecturally . . . so that they better fit with the community.”
According to the city’s ideas for discussion, any proposed revision to current ordinances, or an entirely new ordinance, would affect stores or retail developments larger than 40,000 square feet, or about one acre.
Some of the proposed changes require such stores to include architectural elements such as canopies, peaked roofs, arches and recessed fronts, while providing customers better access to pedestrian, bicycle and transit systems.
Earlier this year, The Kroenke Group presented a proposal to the City Council ensuring that the Super Wal-Mart at Fairview Road and West Broadway would blend with the community. It will include a brick exterior, landscaped berms and internal sidewalks that allow customers to safely cross the 987-space parking lot and access transit stops, sidewalks and bike lanes.
Hindman said he’s always thought that such an ordinance should be in place and the construction of a new Wal-Mart at the corner of Fairview Road and West Broadway had nothing to do with the decision.
“I certainly think it made it more possible to promote such an idea,” Hindman said.
The Fairview Wal-Mart will feature architectural and landscaping elements that might become commonplace if an ordinance is created and passed.
Yet, not everyone agrees with a universal ordinance.
Craig Van Matre, a spokesman for The Kroenke Group, said the city faces a quandary in enforcing an ordinance that hinges on subjective opinion.
“You know, one man’s slum may be another man’s castle,” Van Matre said. “When you legislate on matters of aesthetic appearance, you’re beginning to encroach on a slippery slope.”
Timothy Teddy, Columbia’s planning director, said the city will try to avoid ambiguous language and strive for objective criteria when evaluating aesthetic aspects.
Vague language aside, Van Matre’s greatest concern is that an ordinance will have a veiled intent, allowing the city to either micromanage various aspects of developments or block construction of these stores and retail centers.
As an example, Van Matre cited a proposed restriction on parking that allows stores to place only 60 percent of parking spaces directly in front of a store.
“It’s just silly to micromanage like that,” Van Matre said. “I suppose they can do that, but does it do any good?”
Van Matre warned the city might inadvertently down-zone property by using a square footage requirement that would possibly squeeze out smaller developers.
He said a square footage requirement could prevent small developers from building. For example, if a developer was permitted to construct a 50,000 square foot building in an open zoning area, the big box ordinance could prevent that construction because it exceeds 40,000 square feet.
Teddy said it is too early to say definitively that the 40,000 square feet designation would be a part of any ordinance and other factors will be used when evaluating development plans.
Hindman and Teddy were quick to dispel the notion that any ordinance crafted and implemented would be an effort to prevent big box store construction, but to make stores more attractive architecturally.
“These stores are free to come here and can be an important feature to our city,” Hindman said.
Teddy said today’s meeting is meant to be a working discussion of what goals and features an ordinance could include, and an open work session is tentatively scheduled for August. Both venues will allow developers and the general public to participate in the discussion.
Teddy said the earliest an ordinance could be before the council is November.
Columbia is not the only community to either consider or enact such an ordinance, but its popularity is nothing new.
“There’s been quite a bit of information and interest in this topic for about a decade,” Teddy said.
A recent example is Freehold, N.J., a colonial town of 32,000 residents founded in 1693 that enacted its ordinance in 2002 to preserve its historical integrity.
Guy Leighton, Freehold’s planning director, said developers are generally amenable to the idea of architecturally enhancing big box stores.
“You can get these stores changed,” Leighton said. “They’re willing to do it if they want to come into town, and most of them are willing to go along,” in order to move into a community whose residents have disposable income.
Leighton also credited the public for being much more cognizant of what goes on in the planning process and “know what they like,” when it comes to these buildings.
However, he said that such an ordinance doesn’t always quell residents’ concerns about the increased traffic, the increased lighting and the increased noise associated with large scale retail.