BIG BOX makeover

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2007 - 4:33 PM

Communities are demanding that big-box retail centers be more attractive and more in tune with their surroundings.

Standing in front of her Richfield home, Erika Lozano looked out at the SuperTarget and Home Depot being built just a few hundred yards away and offered a comment that typifies the conflicted views most people hold about big-box stores.

"I'm going to like being able to shop there," Lozano said. "But I miss the houses," she added, pointing to where homes like hers used to be.

Big-box retailers, from discounters like Wal-Mart to so-called category killers like Dick's Sporting Goods, are clearly a hit with shoppers. Community centers, which usually have at least one big-box tenant, continue to be the fastest-growing segment of retail development in the Twin Cities and other parts of the country.

But people are less enthusiastic about the impact such massive outlets have on their communities.

Increasingly, projects are drawing scrutiny from residents and city officials whose concerns range from traffic congestion to the sheer size and appearance of the stores.

In Roseville, opposition to big-box retail was one of the reasons the Twin Lakes mixed-use development was called off, according to Jamie Radel, city planning associate. In Inver Grove Heights, residents thwarted construction of a Wal-Mart until the store was downsized and redesigned.

To counter such increasingly widespread resistance, developers are beginning to redefine what a big box store should look like.

In Edina, a SuperTarget to open this fall near Southdale will have a distinctive flagstone and metal facade, glass entryways that will glow at night and a sleek design that will make the building look less bulky than the smaller Target Greatland it's replacing. The new store was approved after the city's planning commission called for several changes in design, building materials and landscaping.

And in Lozano's neighborhood, the Cedar Point Commons project with the SuperTarget, Home Depot and several smaller stores will reflect years of planning and input from Richfield city officials and residents.

"There's an awareness on the part of large retailers that they need to make their stores more attractive," said Jim McComb, a Minneapolis retail consultant. It's a significant change, particularly for discount retailers whose early stores were meant to look like stripped-down warehouses as part of their low-cost image, he said.

For example, at The Quarry, developed in 1997 in northeast Minneapolis by Ryan Cos., the tenants, which include Target, PetsMart, OfficeMax and Home Depot, are lined up in a solid wall that looks like a fortress. Mark Schoening, a Ryan vice president who oversees retail development, said the center probably would be designed differently if it were being built today.

Design challenges

The demands of communities wanting better-looking big-box centers pose challenges for retailers and developers. "These retailers operate in a highly competitive business and have to pay very close attention to their return on investment," Schoening said. "There are circumstances where they can depart [from a standard store design], and others where they can't. Cities don't always want to believe that."

Tim Murnane, senior vice president of Minnetonka-based Opus Northwest, agreed.

"It's not by happenstance that these big-box stores get built and that it all works," he said. "Retailers have very specific requirements, with design considerations that include things like how merchandise shipments are delivered and brought into stores."

For developers, the difficulties of meeting both retailers' and communities' needs have become even more complicated with the dwindling availability of suitable land, Schoening and Murnane said.

"We have to be twice as clever these days to make the best possible use of every square inch," Schoening said. "It's a lot harder to find pieces of land that are pre-made to order."

At the Fountains at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove, an 800,000-square-foot project with anchors including Costco, Lowe's, Dick's Sporting Goods and REI, Opus worked with big-box tenants so their stores could look more like the smaller shops in the adjacent Arbor Lakes Main Street, Murnane said. Design modifications included varying the facades and roof lines of large-scale stores to break up the mass to look more like a row of smaller shops.

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