Buildings and Blocks

Empty Retail

When I first spoke to the publisher of the Knoxville Voice about writing a column on architecture and urban design, he handed me a book with the admonition, "You'd better read this!" An easy and compelling read, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses (Beacon Press, 2006) was authored by Stacy Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and an advisor on local retail development.

The main thesis of the book is outlined in the chapter titled "Blighted Landscape" where Ms. Mitchell contends that new, excessive, retail development outpaces population or income growth, adversely affecting a city's inner neighborhoods as well as earlier suburban retail. The idea is that a community has limited spending resources, and economic growth in one part of town often means economic decline in another. Using Cleveland (Ohio) as an example, the theory could equally apply to Knoxville or any city where hundreds of properties lie vacant.

A local example of new retail is the Turkey Creek development at the Knoxville-Farragut border. Heralded as a "retail mecca" by its promoters, the project satisfies the dual addictions of driving and shopping, habits that are being curtailed somewhat by higher fuel prices and tightening credit. The "mecca" moniker, connoting the annual hadj (pilgrimage) to the Saudi Arabian holy city of Mecca where the prophet Mohammed was born, appropriately describes a destination where consumption becomes religion.

The complex of hospitals, offices, movie theaters, hotels and retail uses is described on the Turkey Creek website as the largest single commercial development ever built in the Knoxville metropolitan area. Named for an existing creek and occupying over 300 acres of what was mostly wetlands, its shopping component is a Who's Who of national formula stores, familiar to anyone patronizing the malls, strip or big-box centers that have become so commonplace in the suburban landscape of any city in the country.

Bisected by Parkside Drive, a publicly funded, meticulously landscaped boulevard that runs roughly parallel to both I-40 and Kingston Pike, the Creek is divided into smaller shopping centers each served by entry roads named for birds presumably displaced from the wetlands: Snow Goose, Duck Creek, Heron's Nest, Turkey Cove. The fresh stucco, oversized parking spots and safe distance from the city's poverty centers have attracted new retailer "brands" that share the "lifestyle center" real estate with established corporate names and a handful of local merchants. The inclusion of Wal-Mart and Target in the mix, along with the usual fast-food suspects, belies the illusion that this shopping is just for the affluent. There's something here for everyone, if you're willing to drive the distance - in my case, 32 miles roundtrip.

The original 400 acres of woods and wetlands was purchased in 1995 by the Turkey Creek Land Partners for $7 million, averaging about $17,500 per acre. A 58-acre tract of remaining wetlands has been preserved as a nature conservancy, a move to quiet the criticism that the project was environmentally unfriendly. Wetlands, once considered useless swamp land, are now known to provide flood control, filtering of ground water as it drains into lakes, streams and rivers, and habitat for fish and bird life. The destruction of the natural environment along with the proliferation of sprawl impose costs that are never figured into the long-term economic equation by politicians eager to sell the development concept to an uninformed or apathetic public.

Will Turkey Creek go the way of its predecessors, those empty shopping centers and vacant parking lots that litter the landscape in many of our older neighborhoods, contributing to what in its truest sense is urban blight? The earlier projects, recipients of taxpayer-funded incentives and infrastructure improvements, were also heralded as boosting the economy, attracting new businesses, and creating jobs.

An abandoned Bi-Lo, for example, located across from the popular Kroger's store in Bearden, should probably never have been built in the first place. The strip shopping center, on the site of the Parker Brothers' hardware store and a drive-in movie theater, fell victim to Bi-Lo's leaving the Knoxville area. A Target built on the site of the historic Williams House in Fountain City has been replaced by a Super Target near the I-640 loop on land once occupied by the county's failed farmer's market, while the historic house is gone forever. Wal-Mart has done its usual switch by deserting the Chapman Ford shopping center location and moving down the road as a supercenter, closer to the big-box development currently being constructed in Seymour. (Accessing that conglomeration from the rest of the city may force an extension of the James White Parkway and claim even more of South Knoxville's precious tree cover.)

All building projects require the approval of the city and the county, so our local government has the power to direct development in ways that are beneficial to the public, both in the short and long term. Before making decisions that influence what and how we build, members of City Council and County Commission would do well to read Big-Box Swindle. In our under-representative democracy, it's unlikely that political means alone can moderate economic growth or prevent environmental damage, but Ms. Mitchell's forceful arguments might have the power to persuade our more thoughtful and independent elected officials to consider alternatives that are kinder to the place we all share and call home.

2007 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.