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APA press release: New Hope for Deserted “Big-Box” Stores

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For Immediate Release: August 17, 2001
Contacts: Shannon Armstrong, APA Research Dept., 312.431.9100, Kim McKeggie, APA Public Affairs Office, 202.872.0611


Washington, D.C. – At one time or another, each community comes face to face with the dreaded remnants of an abandoned retail anchor – the “‘big-box” full of shopping promise that now stands dark and empty.

While many retailers relocate for larger space, today’s economic indictors suggest that cutbacks will be prompting “big-box” closures for some time yet. Following last year’s bankruptcy announcement, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward completed the closing of 250 stores in March; J.C. Penney plans to close 47 stores; Sears will close at least 89 stores; Bradlee’s, Office Max and Ames have all announced closures and cutbacks slated for this year.

Abandoned parking lots and dark stores quickly attract broken glass, damaged window boards and offer an unsightly and potentially dangerous element to communities. The American Planning Association’s July issue of Zoning News highlights two examples of collaborative partnerships between Wal-Mart, Eckerds and local planning officials to prevent the blight associated with retail relocation.

Wal-Mart’s cooperation with the Evanston, Wyoming Planning Dept., and Eckerds’ cooperation with Georgia’s Peachtree City City Council, resulted in successful retail relocation that retained community aesthetics and managed growth using methods that can be easily replicated in communities nationwide.

“Any town can do what Evanston and Peachtree City did with Wal-Mart and Eckerds,” said Jim Schwab, Editor of Zoning News. “In a classic win-win situation, the companies obtained the desired new space, and the old space avoided long-term abandonment.”

Last year, when Wal-Mart officials approached Evanston city leaders about vacating an existing store for larger space on the outskirts of town, they were met with initial resistance. Evanston’s comprehensive plan focused on preserving the city’s architectural heritage and managing growth, and city leaders were already facing concerns about the proliferation of local big-box retailers.

Rather than refuse Wal-Mart altogether, Evanston officials deferred judgment and began a review process and negotiations with the company. As a result, the corporation agreed to assist the city in placing new tenants in the building and sublet the property if necessary. Wal-Mart also agreed to maintenance provisions including lighting of the parking lot and portions of the interior, sign removal and repainting. Following Wal-Mart’s contractual marketing efforts and non-exclusive listing with Realtors for a capped fee, a local group is currently considering purchase of the property within a time frame that would prevent the store from going dark at all.

A similar case can be found in Peachtree City where Eckerds drugstore chain approached city officials with a plan to construct larger, more modern space. City officials were pleased when Eckerds agreed to hold off construction until the current space was leased to a new tenant.

It was during this process that local planners had to address a common commercial real estate situation: tenants vacate a property but continue to pay rent to a landlord who then has no incentive to lease the property. Similarly, companies who own commercial real estate often vacate and refuse to lease the property to a competitor, leaving it dark instead. Peachtree City officials have now passed an ordinance that prohibits tenants from voluntarily vacating the premises while preventing occupation by another tenant. The ordinance also includes property maintenance requirements, a veritable disincentive for any company to hold on to property it does not intend to use.

“Dark stores bring both inherent and perceived community value down,” said Shannon Armstrong, APA Research Associate and Planning Advisory Service Supervisor. “Wal-Mart and Eckerds have taken the lead in working with planners to retain community value and protect retail investments by taking simple steps that can be mirrored anywhere in America.”

For a copy of this article or more information about Zoning News, please call 312.431.9100. Both hi- and low-resolution digital images of dark stores and a store that has been adapted for reuse are available for download at www.planning.org/info/forthepress/2001ftp/ftp081501.htm
 
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