Wendy Waters recounts Costco's attempt to break into the Manhattan market. A coalition of neighborhood activists, labor groups and (almost certainly) local businesses are trying to repel Costco's foray. While their agendas are transparent, the arguments they've trotted out are mostly of the, "It won't work here, so don't try" variety. Wendy does a nice job dissecting them.
I once thought that these fights in far-off cities didn't really affect me. I felt a little schadenfreude, but that was about it.
But now I think differently. And not just because Austin jumped on the bandwagon, or the Northcross Supercenter fight. As Tory Gattis has cogently argued, perhaps the real obstacle to New Urbanist development -- really, the development of a lower-case "u" urban city fabric that can attract a more diverse range of households -- is the lack of large-scale, big-box retail that offers people the variety and bargains they want. One doesn't even have to believe in the virtues of a denser urban environment. Nor does one have to believe (wrongly) that people will walk or bike to them. No, it's simply a matter of "I want what the suburbanites got, but I don't want to move to the suburbs to get it." The city needs to offer the conveniences of the suburbs.
Costco and Wal-Mart and Home Depot don't know how to build urban stores -- yet. They need to experiment to get it right. They have to learn how to handle parking, how to build up rather than out, how to cater to the slightly different tastes of urban dwellers. They have to learn how to fit a big store in a dense city.
They are trying to experiment. But they need to experiment in the right places. Wal-Mart evidently pulled the plug on its Austin experiment, despite beating the neighborhood opposition, because it wasn't confident the urban model would work at Northcross. It and the other big boxes first need to learn how to build urban stores in truly urban places. So now, when I hear that San Francisco or Chicago or Manhattan has fought off another big box, I think, "Another experiment squelched before it hit the lab." If Costco or Sam's Club could get enough chances, in enough dense cities, they just might bee able to figure out what works. The cities that ought to be hosting the experiments, unfortunately, have closed the labs.