Friday, March 3, 2017

The slow death of suburban sprawl retail

Along the commercial corridors of America where gas stations, fast food joints, car dealers and big boxes join in the uniquely American ugliness that the writer and sprawl observer Howard Kunstler euphemistically dubbed the "geography of nowhere" gloom is setting in. Long used to a high mortality and short life expectancy the corridors are increasingly marred by the corpses of  retail having gone out of fashion and are now littering the roadways as testimony of the retail economy running amok.  The latest wave of death is even more existential than the death of the mall since it hits the big box, the anointed  successor of the mall.
Anywhere USA: Baltimore National Pike (Photo: Philipsen)

Nowhere can this be better observed than in Baltimore's inner ring suburbs and along their radial arterials of Liberty and Reisterstown Road, Pulaski and Ritchie Highway and Baltimore National Pike. Circuit City gave way to Best Buy and Best Buy to Hhgregg. But now all of them are bankrupt. Will anybody come next to fill the cavernous spaces left behind? Not likely.

The US is "over retailed" by a factor of 5 relative to Canada and a factor of 10 compared to European countries when counting the ratio retail space per resident. The crazy thing is, more is still being built.
Since 1995, the number of shopping centers in the U.S. has grown by more than 23% and GLA (total gross leasable area) by almost 30%, while the population has grown by less than 14%. Currently there is close to 25 square feet of retail space per capita (roughly 50 square feet, if small shopping centers and independent retailers are added). In contrast, Europe has about 2.5 square feet per capita. (Forbes 2015)
Baltimore County just approved a huge extension of White Marsh for outlet shopping (the developer/operator went out of business shortly afterwards), is building a new Wegmann Center on Reisterstown Road and a open air replacement of the failed Owings Mills Mall. A new Royal Farms super gas station will signify Towson's gateway on York Road.

Baltimore City is an exception having been bereft of stores after retail fled the city for decades for the cheap parking and end endless space supply of the suburbs.
Abandoned Best Buy in Woodlawn
Baltimore County is now left with the extra load of commercial spacewhich is  rapidly reaching obsolescence even while new ground still gets broken for even more retail in White Marsh, Owings Mills and every other corner of the outer edges of the county's development envelope. It is a bizarre spectacle: While the apple rots at the core the latest outlet centers,
Superstores keep popping up on what used to be greenfields  as if there was no tomorrow, no global warming, no stagnation in disposable income, no shift away from the combustion engine, no Internet and online shopping and no crisis in brick and mortar retail.

But the tide is turning. Suburban retailers are looking with envy at the sales at Mondawmin Mall or the success of Canton Crossing. High end sidewalk retail in Harbor East is booming. The City and the historic cores of the County such as Catonsville are attracting new businesses and restaurants; a cool revenge on the big boxes along US 40 that once sucked out the life of downtown Baltimore and the historic Catonsville Village alike.

Their vast parking lots are now yawningly empty. The inside of Office Depot feels like a morgue and is possibly even emptier than the nearby Staples. Sections of the Forty West shopping center have been leveled, others have become a St Agnes outpatient facility. Long gone is the Franks Garden Center and the demise of the remaining Pets Mart is probably just a matter of time. The ailing Security Square Mall is no longer the only giant problem, so is the much newer shopping satellite across Security Boulevard, a 50,000sf Best Buy that is now sitting fallow.
Hhgregg Catonsville: Its lights will be turned off shortly (Photo: Philipen)

The Edmondson Drive-in movie became a  a Home Depot 25 years ago. Thanks to strong strength in the construction trade it is still going strong. But a nearby equally large Lowe's is overlooking what was once Westview Mall and is stumbling from one make-over to the next without ever really coming off as anything worth the vast space it occupies.Pushing Latinos who are assembling in the Home Depot parking lots looking for gigs  out the country won't help, whether it is through the federally promoted hostility or by ICE raids. Forbes describes the retail scene bleakly:
The recent closure of all 140 Sports Authority stores in the US is part of a trend showing no sign of letting up any time soon. Consumers continue to shop online like never before, as traffic dwindles in brick and mortar stores. (Seeking Alpha)
It has been a tough few weeks for retailers. Last week, Macy’s announced that it would close 63 stores and Sears said that 150 of its locations, including 108 Kmarts, will go dark. The stock prices of Macy’s and Kohl’s have plummeted, dragging those of Nordstrom and J.C. Penney along with them. (Forbes Jan 2017)
Montgomery Ward, K-Mart, Circuit City, Sports Authority, Toys R Us, and JoAnns Fabric are all just ghostly memories along the Baltimore National Pike.
Far more asphalt than shoppers: 40 West Center Catonsville
Thursday Hhgregg joint the line of corpses: it will be closing the area's last place where one could still touch an appliance or TV before ordering it online. Yes, precisely that is the retailer's problem. And yes, more or less stagnant incomes don't help. The BBJ about Hhgregg local demise:
Across the Baltimore area, the retailer will shutter 11 stores in Catonsville, Hanover, Bel Air, Towson, Annapolis and Glen Burnie.  A total of 1,500 jobs will be lost as part of the closures, company officials said Thursday afternoon. The closures are expected to begin Friday and be completed by mid-April (BBJ)
Developers who whine that Baltimore County will run out of space because of its urban rural demarcation line and dwindling space reserves inside the boundary should take a good hard look at the miles of more or less derelict commercial spaces: Plenty of opportunity for taking the geography of nowhere and turn it into real neighborhoods. American's are yearning for authenticity, service and quaintness. The old commercial corridors and their malls and big boxes are rapidly becoming dinosaurs condemned to extinction. Good riddance!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ about Hhgregg's demise of Baltimore area stores


  1. Well said. Luckily #notaBaltimoreproblem.

  2. I hope to one day see Mondawmin Parking lots filled with mixed use apartments and hidden parking. Such TOD would be a huge plus for the area, and an opportunity to rebuild adjacent sections of Reisterstown and Gwynns Falls as complete streets.