Pandora’s big box
City struggles with ways to manage chain stores
March 20, 2004
When the Steamboat Springs City Council enacted a 90-day moratorium on big-box retail Tuesday night, it did so with the knowledge that an even bigger tasked loomed.
The council has less than three months to create and approve an ordinance that will manage the impacts of large, national chain stores.
Councilwoman Kathy Connell questioned whether a consensus on such a complicated and heated issue could be reached in three months. Council President Paul Strong said the question of big-box retail is one the community has been grappling with for more than two years.
Gart Sports’ announcement last week that a Steamboat Springs store could be open by November has brought the dilemma of big-box retail stores to the forefront. But the issue has long been on the council’s agenda.
In June 2002, former city Planning Director Wendie Schulenburg brought to the council a report outlining tools for regulating big-box retail. In March 2003, the council held a community forum to discuss “when enough is enough” as the community looked at managing commercial growth.
Two months later, the Economic Summit focused on Main Street vitalization and ways to manage big-box retail. And, for the past two years, big-box stores and maintaining the unique character of Steamboat have been among the discussion items in updating the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan.
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“We have been talking a lot,” Strong said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “It is time for us to do something or make a decision.”
The city’s development code does not include specific big-box guidelines. The code does require that any commercial building larger than 12,000 square feet go through the development plan process, Assistant Planning Director Tim McHarg said. That process requires a big box, like any building, to follow an established set of guidelines for site plans, landscaping, architecture and design.
The closest the city’s code comes to regulating big box is in its requirements for franchise buildings. The code mandates that, if store signs were taken off a building, residents should not be able to recognize the franchise by the architecture, McHarg said.
McHarg said the solution to managing big-box retail really depends on what the community views as the problem. Critics point to the negative economic, social and aesthetic impacts of big boxes, while governments wrestle with which tools best address those problems.
“We can give you a hammer, but it is tough to turn a screw with a hammer,” McHarg said. “We can give you a screw driver, but it is tough to pound nails with that.”
Choosing the tools
In Schulenburg’s 2002 report to the council, she listed eight ways to manage big-box stores: limit the size; limit the floor-area ratio, lot coverage or parcel size; control site plan and architecture; require discretionary review and approval; require a community-impact assessment; bar formula, corporate or franchise type operations; enact an ordinance similar to Boulder’s Community Vitality Act; and control the timing and phasing. Many of those methods have been discussed since then as ways to manage big-box retail.
Strong, who brought the 90-day moratorium forward Tuesday, has been working with three community groups, the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley, the Downtown Business Association and the Mountain Business Association. He sees the solution as a combination of tools, mixing zoning and architectural and design regulations.
City Planning Director Steve Stamey said the city was looking at ways to control big boxes through architectural and design standards. He pointed to regulations the city of Fort Collins made Wal-Mart meet as a way government can have control over big-box retail.
Connell wants the city to take a regional approach, following the model of Montrose and Telluride. She has proposed creating a big-box commercial center near Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
The Community Alliance’s original proposal to Strong was to require big-box stores to go through an economic and community impact statement, Strong said. The idea is a fairly new one but has been done in communities including Greenfield, Mass., and Santa Cruz, Calif.
The city can look to other communities for guidance, Councilman Steve Ivancie said, but it will have to come up with its own solution.
In 1994 with the construction of a super-sized Wal-Mart pending, the city of Fort Collins put a committee in place to look at ways to manage big-box retail. In October 2001, a Wal-Mart Super Center opened there.
Ted Shepard, a senior planner for Fort Collins, said he continues to receive calls from across the country asking what the city did to make Wal-Mart not look like a Wal-Mart and preserve community character.
In attempts to protect the gateway into the city, Harmony Road, and after learning of plans for a Wal-Mart on land nearby, Shepard said, the Fort Collins City Council decided to place a six-month moratorium on big-box retail, hire a Denver consulting firm and form an advisory committee.
The committee considered limiting the size of big-box stores, putting in place architectural and design standards, requiring an economic impact statement and banning certain national chains, he said.
In the end, the committee and council enacted a policy that did not enforce a size limit, but did put other regulations in place for stores larger than 25,000 square feet.
The city required such stores to have four business establishments in the shopping center, to be accessed by two roads, put no more than half of its parking in front of the building and follow architectural guidelines.
Not putting a size limit in the regulations ended up to be a mistake, Shepard said, as Wal-Mart built a 205,000-square-foot store, more than twice the size of the largest store in Fort Collins at that time.
“Had we known that back in 1994, we likely would have said we have got to cap the size,” he said. “My belief: The smaller the community is, the more you need to think about capping.”
Having such regulations would help in dealing with big-box applications, McHarg said.
McHarg said standards should do more than dictate architecture and design, they should take into account how the store relates to other nearby buildings. The building should be modeled on a pedestrian scale, not for vehicles, McHarg said.
“A defined set of standards for defined parts of town as well as new uses, that would be fantastic,” he said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Connell looked to the relationship between Telluride and Montrose as one possible solution to regulating big-box retail.
Montrose, a town of 12,000 people, is more than 60 miles down the road from Telluride, a town of just more than 2,000. Montrose is where those in Telluride go to do their shopping. It is also where visitors land when they fly to Telluride.
Telluride wanted to stay unique and keep its historic downtown vibrant, Connell said, while Montrose wanted to have the businesses and provide the airport.
“Does this sound familiar?” Connell asked Tuesday night. “Not only did (Montrose) support the airport, but they put businesses around it to keep the airport going.”
Since the big-box discussion began, Connell has been asking the city to take a regional look at solving the big-box problem and to consider building such stores out by YVRA near Hayden.
“Just to be able to have affordable shopping in Northwest Colorado and have the money stay in our county would help things,” Connell said.
Zoning to restrict placement of big-box stores is also an element in Strong’s solution.
“I don’t want to see big box in the downtown. I don’t want to see it at the base of the mountain,” Strong said.
At last year’s Economic Summit, Montrose senior planner Gary Baker spoke about creating a regional shopping destination in western Colorado.
Montrose has three grocery stores larger than 25,000 square feet, a Big R, The Home Depot and Wal-Mart. When the Wal-Mart wanted to increase its size, the community looked at placing limits on how big it could be, Baker said Friday. The city decided not to cap the size, but it did create other regulations for big-box stores.
Taking its cue from Durango, Baker said, the newly opened The Home Depot followed city regulations by designing a building with a heavy lumber entrance and heavy timber trim.
“(Big-box stores) will do a lot to meet local needs,” Baker said. “They have gotten accustomed to that, especially in mountain communities.”
Montrose’s downtown remains healthy, despite the increase in big-box stores, but Baker has seen a change in what is offered. Two hardware stores still anchor the downtown, even after the opening of The Home Depot, Baker said, but he also has seen more niche businesses come to the downtown.
“There has been a few more restaurants move into the downtown, and the more traditional retail has moved out,” he said. “But the vacancy rates manages to keep low.”
Community impact studies
The Community Alliance supports a community impact study in managing big-box retail.
“It puts a certain amount of discretion with the city,” President Diane Brower said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Using a community impact assessment also was suggested in Schulenburg’s 2002 report. The assessment would require new large commercial uses to demonstrate they meet specific criteria related to the impacts they would have on the environment, public revenue streams, historic preservation, traffic, the local economy and community character.
The town of Greenfield, Mass., requires that new stores larger than 20,000 square feet show they would not adversely impact the downtown business district or community character.
In her report, Schulenburg noted, “It would provide an effective measure of ensuring a good mix of businesses and reducing the competition that could erode the existing commercial base.”
McHarg questioned who would compile the study and who would review it. He worried it could become a contest between who was the biggest liar.
“We are trying to get away from the qualitative decision-making process,” McHarg said.
Shepard said the approach is a new one and that Fort Collins did look at a community impact statement and was advised by its attorney not to do it.
Strong worried the impact statement, which could cost as much as $5,000, could be too expensive for some businesses, who then would pass the cost on to consumers. For stores as big as Wal-Mart, Strong said, the impact study would not be as much of a burden and could be helpful.
“I need more information to know if that is a valid option,” he said.
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