Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: The Mystery of SUNYAB
Next story: Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

Too Many Stores

American civilization has its perfect expression in Union Road, in the entirety of its run from Orchard Park to Williamsville. Union Road is a succession of strip malls that link the marquee suburbs of Western New York. It is what the anti-suburbanites call “Generica,” and it is a refutation of every fond hope for “smart growth,” “new urbanism,” “transit-oriented development,” and “green infrastructure,” because Union Road is all about automobiles. If gasoline spikes in price again as it did in 2008, whether because Goldman Sachs speculators bid oil futures up, or because the BP disaster in the Gulf gets worse, or because Sarah Palin and Ron Paul’s racist spawn win the mid-term elections, Union Road will be just one more suburban commercial thoroughfare clogged with angry consumers with not enough money to shop because their cars ate all their discretionary disposable income.

Union Road exists in the form that it does because since the mid-1950s, it has been the connector between consumers and retailing. At its north end, the traditional retail establishments in the Village of Williamsville predominate. Driving south toward Genesee Street brings one to the wide-setback strip plazas of the 1960s, where nowadays the somewhat downscale stores are. Further south, there is layering: regionally owned grocery chain stores are mixed with various national big-box stores in a plaza that was well established more than 40 years ago, while opposite, some locally owned stores and service centers predominate up until the entrance roads to the region’s largest shopping mall. Past the next big intersection at Walden, which is itself a mile of big-box stores intermixed with discount houses and a few relatively downscale stores that are not to be found in the premium-rental malls, there is a gap of only two miles before the 1960s strip mall pattern repeats.

The village centers have a vestigial existence as retailing zones; of the 16 villages in Erie County, only Kenmore, East Aurora, Hamburg, Williamsville, and Orchard Park look like villages, but even they have shopping plazas that have more retail space than each of their main streets does. Springville’s village center is obsolete as the area’s center for commerce, having long since been supplanted by the cluster of big boxes and Wal-Mart on Route 219. Angola village’s drugstore succumbed long ago to the big boxes on Route 5. Lancaster is a curious amalgam. Akron still looks like the New England Yankee place its Civil War veterans knew when they erected the tall pole to show support for Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign, because Akron still has a village commons of the type English settlers established before they came to the Niagara Frontier when it really was a frontier—but Akron shoppers shop like Angola, Lancaster, Sloan, Clarence, and also Buffalo shoppers shop: on big roads, at big-box stores, at gigantic grocery stores, and at the Galleria, Boulevard, Eastern Hills, and McKinley malls. That’s where the retail trade is. Change the names of the roads and the municipalities, and you could be anywhere in the contemporary United States.

But there’s increasing evidence that behavioral changes driven by the internet and by age-specific consumer preferences will change all this. At the Urban Land Institute and at many other institutes and think tanks, and in the real-estate industry’s own publications, there’s a growing consensus that there is way, way too much square footage devoted to retailing.

Too many stores?

Until recently, the conventional wisdom in the national real estate industry was that when America emerges from the recession, retail will come roaring back. Retail trade took a major hit in 2008 and 2009 when 10 million Americans lost their jobs, and more than a million lost their homes, and the theory of the rebound has been that retailers are going to benefit from the newly invigorated American consumerist feeding frenzy, just like in the olden days of, say, the middle of 2006.

But that consensus is creaky. Two market research specialists named Gruen, writing in the most recent volume of the Urban Land Institute’s cleverly titled journal Urban Land, wave the caution flag about retail stores. Mayors and other officials who are trying to revive downtowns in small cities, they warn, had better pay attention to some demographic shifts and behavioral changes in the post-recession world.

Gruen and Gruen are particularly focused on two population groups: the “generation Y” folks who are between 16 and 30, and the Boomers aged 46 to 64. Generation Y-ers “don’t spend much time or money shopping,” they say. Boomers have been hurt much more than Generation Y, but they already own many of the goods they want and most of what they need. “They frequently spend their surplus dollars on their children for college expenses…as well as on caring for aging parents,” say Gruen and Gruen.

And then there are online sales. Internet retailing accounted for sic percent of all sales in 2009, up from five percent in 2008. By 2013, Forrester Research, in another study, predicts the internet will jump to an eight percent share.

But it’s when you review the numbers on existing stores, not the new ones, that the story gets a little crazy.

Scholars Mark J. Eppli and Stephen P. Laposa, writing in the Journal of Real Estate Research, came up with a measure: the Gross Leaseable Area, or GLA. The GLA per capita is reported for fareestanding retail space, shopping center space, and total retail space. For established East Coast cities and their suburbs, the GLA per capita was less than 10 square feet. Cities that maintained a high GLA per capita, i.e., over 18 square feet, were all younger, high-growth cities and include Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

The Buffalo area, strangely, has a GLA profile that puts it into the “younger, high-growth” category. This is not a high-growth area: The Buffalo metro area lost more than 50,000 people between 2000 and 2010. The population is expected to shrink another six to 10 percent by 2020.

Others measure differently. The fast-growing Washington, DC area has more than 100 shopping centers, more than 119 million square feet of retail space, and 25.9 square feet of retail per capita. It’s one of America’s strongest economic regions and is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. The Buffalo area has more retail space per capita than DC. The Cleveland area, which like Buffalo has lost population and is expected to lose more, has a similar profile, according to the county planning commission there. The numbers there are even higher than Buffalo’s.

Why build more?

There is a theory that old central cities will be repopulated by a combination of aging empty-nest Boomers, plus Generation Y college grads, plus urban-experience-seeking ’tweeners. The Urban Land Institute analysts, like many real estate professionals who cluster at smart growth conferences, expect the general trend of urban redevelopment to persist.

But when they talk about repopulating the urban core, the first thing they all mention is housing. At his speech at the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery last Friday, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy, proudly hailed his city’s new sports arenas, but noted again and again that his city’s true successes were in creating a continuous waterfront park—like the 150-block-long park in Chicago, or Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, or the waterfront in Hamilton, Ontario, etc.—and in creating new housing inside the boundaries of the formerly polluted city.

Housing. Parks. Green space. Waterfront access. That’s strangely reminiscent of the agenda of the former mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist, in his book The Wealth of Cities. It’s the fabric of old and new, of walkable neighborhoods with locally owned stores immediately adjacent to where people live, that the late Jane Jacobs extolled. Housing and public space. Stores come later. And now that stores and shopping take place inside our computers, one wonders: Since we can buy anything at all except food and toilet paper and restaurant meals over the internet, or out on Union Road, why we would need any more stores anyway?

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

blog comments powered by Disqus