Analysis: The Counter-Narrative on Retail and Big Box Development


Since the early days of the Vanguard, these pages have been fiercely critical of the notion of big box retail, concerned that investment into large, distant companies will undermine local business prospects while further damaging the environment.

At the same time the city of Davis pushed for the development of Target in 2006, local policies continued to favor the core area and local business. That focus, however, seems to have continued and exacerbated a trend which has seen the decline of retail in the core and pushed sales tax revenues downward.

A new report in UC transportation magazine, ACCESS, by Susan L. Handy, Kristin Lovejoy, Gian-Claudia Sciara, Deborah Salon and Patricia Mokhtarian ponders a counter-narrative, asking whether opening a big box store in Davis actually reduced pollution.

Davis, the authors note, is well know “for having the highest share of bicycle commuters in the US, due in large part to pioneering efforts starting in the 1960s that created an extensive bicycling network.” They also note “the substantial effort Davis has made to avert the kind of sprawl found in most US cities.”

“Davis restricts development beyond the current urban boundary while at the same time encouraging infill development within the boundary,” they write. “As a result, Davis is the sixth densest urbanized area in the US and an exemplar of what small cities can achieve with coordinated policies and careful planning.”

That is the backdrop to what became “a fiery debate” in 2006 when the Davis city council proposed adding a Target. The authors note, “At the time, the city’s General Plan deemed “warehouse style retailers … inappropriate given the nature and scale of the Davis market” and restricted retail businesses outside downtown to sizes appropriate for serving small neighborhoods rather than larger regions. The land use code limited store sizes to 30,000 square feet, far less than the proposed 137,000 for the Target store. Though the City Council approved the project in June 2006, it recognized the decision’s combustibility and held a public referendum on the development agreement.”

They write, “Impassioned Davis residents voiced concerns regarding Target’s arrival, including its environmental, economic, fiscal, social, and cultural impacts. Some residents feared that Target would harm local businesses and draw shoppers away from neighborhood centers. Others argued that allowing Target to move into Davis would be a public endorsement of big-box retail, a type of built form thought to be incompatible with the city’s larger sustainability goals and town culture.”

On the other hand, supporters of the project countered that “residents already shopped at stores like Target in other cities, and that a Davis Target would fill a retail need, keep sales tax revenues within the city, and reduce driving. In November 2006, 51.5 percent of voters cast their ballots in support of the project, and a Target store finally opened in Davis in October 2009.”

The question the authors sought to address was how Target affected Davis. After all, they note, “Davis is not the first community to debate the desirability of big-box retail.”

One question was to measure vehicle miles traveled (VMT). They write, “We estimate that, after Target opened, average monthly shopping VMT declined from 98.4 to 79.5 per person, a drop of nearly 19 miles per month per adult age 25 or over. This decline translates into a savings of over 7.5 million VMT per year, reducing CO2 emissions by 2,0 metric tons, equivalent to the total CO2 emissions from 589 passenger cars for a year.”

They continue, “We found that shopping trips shifted in significant ways after the Target opened.”


One of the key findings is that “[n]early all trips to stores outside Davis were by car, but within Davis, close to 20 percent of respondents walked, bicycled, or used transit. So when residents shifted from stores outside of Davis to Target in Davis, they were more likely to get there by means other than driving, which also reduced VMT.”

Next they address the impact on downtown. “Residents shopped downtown somewhat less often after Target opened. On the other hand, residents made many fewer trips to stores outside downtown Davis, where businesses are more likely to be national chains. Thus, while Target’s arrival coincided with a drop in total trips, chain stores were affected more than locally owned stores,” they find.


They note: “Not surprisingly, given the mix of stores downtown, most shopping trips for Target-type items were not to downtown even before Target opened. In other words, Target is not a good substitute for downtown shopping.”

In their “lessons for other cities” section they note that “Davis isn’t like most other American cities.” They write, “Before Target opened in the city, the nearest Target or Walmart was at least eight miles from the center of Davis, a result of aggressive growth management policies that have preserved the agricultural lands separating Davis from neighboring cities. When Target opened, the average driving time to the nearest big-box store fell by two-thirds.”

Stores in the downtown did well in the absence of big-box store, but the authors note, “As a result of their initial vitality, stores in downtown Davis may have been more immune to the Target shock than downtown stores of other communities. On the other hand, many downtowns have already been decimated by the proliferation of chain stores and strip malls to the point where one more big-box store would have little impact.”

The authors argue, “For both healthy downtowns that offer something different from big-box stores, and for struggling downtowns already affected by them, fears about another big-box store may be exaggerated.”

They conclude, “Target did not mean the end of life as we know it in Davis. The store added to the shopping options available to residents, and it lowered overall greenhouse gas emissions without seriously harming downtown. The new Target is popular with Davis residents: while just over 50 percent of voters supported the Target store, nearly 90 percent of respondents reported having shopped there a year after its opening. And the share of respondents who agreed with the statement, ‘It was a good decision to allow a Target store in Davis,’ increased from 60 percent before its opening to 68 percent afterwards. Other communities, with the right combination of policies in place, might also find that big-box retail is not so bad.”

The author’s simple analysis which focuses on shopping choices and VMT does not address a second critical question. Right now, the city has focused on tech parks and research from the university to drive the new Davis economy. That has been an approach the Vanguard has supported.

The question we do not have an answer to is whether Davis would benefit from increased peripheral retail.

In fact, back in the summer of 2013 when the Vanguard spoke to then-Chief Innovation officer Rob White and then-Chamber CEO Kemble Pope, Rob White said that we know right now that the city of Davis does not want a regional mall.  That is a revenue source that many communities have gone to, but that Davis has opted not to do.

On the other hand, as we face a huge fight over the prospect of innovation parks in Davis, maybe we at least need to explore the idea, especially as it involves the downtown in increasing the amount of retail space.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    The graph provided would seem to indicate that the increase in on line shopping may have had a slightly bigger impact than the Target and did not take any space available for other endeavors .

  2. Topcat

    From my experience, the opening of the Costco in Woodland changed shopping patterns of many of the people I know in Davis.  I make regular trips to Costco and when I’m there I often see people I know from Davis.  While we are there in Woodland we can also go to the Target store.

    1. Barack Palin

      Same here Topcat.  I live near the 102, it’s a pretty drive and not all that much farther to go to Costco in Woodland and I don’t have to deal with the crazy Davis stop lights.

      I voted against the Target, but in retrospect it’s nice to have it here and I don’t think it’s really hurt the downtown as much as the detractors tried to represent.  I remember what I felt was one of the best lines for having a Davis Target:

      ‘Where in Davis can you buy underwear?’

      I thought about it at the time and agreed, I couldn’t think of anywhere.

        1. Barack Palin

          The only time I go downtown is to eat, drink or see a movie.  I never go downtown to shop, I for the most part go to Woodland for that.

        2. Matt Williams

          One of the major reasons why Davis has very limited retail shopping is because of the town’s demographics.  The economic engine that sustains retail shopping is the 25 year-old to 55 year-old demographic cohort.  For the most part, residents over the age of 55 have made most of their retail life purchases (other than replacement automobiles).  Residents under the age of 25 have limited purchasing power.

          The 2010 US Census shows a population of 65,622 for the City of Davis, and less than one-third (32.96%) of that population is in the 25-55 cohort.  That 32.96% is down from 38.42% in the 2000 Census.  The Under 25 cohort held steady at 49.55%, while the 55 and Over cohort rose from 12% to 17.49%.

          Bottom-line, when a city’s retail businesses have a small proportion of consumers in the target demographic cohort, and that proportion is shrinking, the prospects for those retail businesses are challenging to say the least. On the other hand, service businesses, which tap into all the demographic cohorts will thrive in such an environment.

  3. Gunrocik

    City of Davis Land Use policies and DJUSD Special programs greatly increase the vehicle miles traveled in Yolo County – and therefore reduce air quality.

    Not allowing a Costco, or any of the other stores (other than Target) adjacent to Costco means tens of thousands of additional vehicle trips every week by Davis Drivers.

    Not allowing more spinoff development from UC Davis means plenty of outbound commute trips for spouses of UC Davis employees living in Davis.

    Lack of residential development over the past decade while UC Davis has continued to grow as an employment center has meant thousands of inbound commuter trips clogging I-80 every day coming into Davis.

    Lack of residential development means that about 7-8% of our DJUSD students are driving into Davis each day from surrounding communities.

    Having specific schools for GATE and having a Spanish Language immersion program has meant that only 60% of Davis elementary school students attend their home school — also creating thousands of unnecessary vehicle trips each day.

    I got a real kick out of the anti-Cannery folks complaining about all the additional traffic that a new residential development would bring into town.  The reality is that our current land use policies are generating far more additional traffic by not allowing more people to be able to live and work in the same town.

    This town preaches sustainability, but follows a set of policies that merely exports many of its land use impacts to adjoining communities, and creates many unnecessary trips for its residents.


      1. Gunrocik

        Exactly, it would be an environmental disaster — and would mostly support folks coming in from the outside for tournaments who likely would be just here for the day.  And since it is well outside town, it is very unlikely they would spend any money in Davis.

        We’ve got a great setup of sports facilities right now well within short bike or drive of most families.  It would make more sense to spend money to update what we have rather than to create a sprawling expensive complex that just duplicates what a lot of other cities have.

        And it is a pipe dream to think we could ever redevelop our existing little league fields — the nimbys would drag it out for a decade and make it too expensive for anyone to develop.


  4. Tia Will

    creates many unnecessary trips for its residents.”

    The policies do not create these unnecessary trips for residents. The residents choose to make additional trips.

    Residents could also choose to plan their trips more carefully to include shopping trips into one run, or combine them with other activities. They could choose to make underwear purchases on line.  All most of this takes is a little planning ahead.  What I heard from most of the people that were on the opposite side of the issue from me was the “convenience”. Yes, I agree, it is more convenient if you use it. However, this is the “Starbucks on every corner argument”. Did we really need a ninth Target within a 30 minute radius of Davis which was the number at the time ?  For those in North Davis, the Woodland Target is often more easily accessible. So do we need a West Davis Target as well  to not inconvenience those on that end of town? Oh, wait, they can easily hop over to the one in Vacaville. How much” convenience” does a town of 65+ thousand really need ?

    1. Gunrocik

      I’m not going to even get into a debate over the lifestyle choices or  “Davis Exceptionalism” as I call it that the Davis “Prius Liberals” try to impose on the rest of the us.

      Is it really fair that we want to reap all the benefits of being a college town (high paying jobs, high home prices, plenty of students and visitors to keep our downtown alive, great cultural amenities, highly educated students for our primary schools), but we also feel like we are so special that we can export all of the negatives that come along with having a vibrant community–and feel no need to house those who want to work and study here?


      1. Don Shor

        You’ve really posed a housing issue, not a retail/business issue. The housing issue is at a standoff. The university won’t provide enough housing for UCD students. The voters won’t approve big housing projects. Until the extreme apartment shortage is addressed, housing won’t be available for “those who want to work and study here.” And I don’t see that changing anytime soon, unless city leaders can collaborate with UCD to address it.

        1. Matt Williams

          Agreed Don, which is why your question to the Mayor (and Council per yesterday’s request of Robb Davis) is so important.

          Are you concerned about the 0.3% apartment vacancy rate, and, if so, what the current council might be doing to address that?

          Note: in compliance with the Mayor’s request, the above question is the first one that has co-signer who is  a non-anonymous City of Davis resident, not officially connected to the Vanguard … Daniel Parrella.  It will be interesting to see what the Mayor’s and Council members’ responses are to this important question.

  5. Don Shor

    The problem wasn’t Target per se. It was the size and location. Target could have proposed and built a store in any of the existing neighborhood shopping centers without needing a zoning change or voter approval. There are chain stores in those centers (OfficeMax, Big 5). All they had to do was comply with the city’s store size limitation. These big footprint peripheral stores are going to be a thing of the past, but in the 1990’s and 2000’s that was all the Big Box retailers wanted to build. Repurposing abandoned big box retail sites is already a niche specialization in architecture and planning professions.

    1. Gunrocik

      A 25,000 square foot Target store isn’t a Target.  I shop at Target because of their variety and selection.  They’ve been building Target stores of this size since the 1970s and I’m guessing they will continue to build this size for another 40 years.  I don’t want a cramped under sized store with no parking next to Safeway.  Neither do 95% of our residents.

      The other box stores have come and gone, Target has withstood the ups and downs unlike Gemco, Zody’s, Woolco and the rest of the abandoned retailers.  They shed off Mervyn’s and have actually become a mall anchor many places, even next door to a Nordstroms in Irvine.  And they maintain their stores and parking lots far better than Wal-Mart.

      Target is the one box store consistent with true Davis values — not those values espoused by the outliers who dominate the political scene–but the people who do most of the living and working and paying and dying in this town.  They appeal to all class of families and are great for students–and they are a much better neighbor than Wal-Mart.

      Most of the abandoned boxes are in locations where Wal-Mart and Target and Home Depot have come in and killed off the smaller boxes and the malls.  We have neither.  We will never have to worry about being over-retailed and we have the one retailer who will stick around in one place — unlike Wal-Mart who will abandon their store if they find a better spot.

      We should celebrating the fact that we got the best of the breed in a convenient location.


    2. Mark West

      The problem wasn’t Target per se. It was the size and location. Target could have proposed and built a store in any of the existing neighborhood shopping centers without needing a zoning change or voter approval.


      No, the problem was the restriction on the size of stores at the neighborhood shopping centers and the requirement that each contain a grocery store. The neighborhood centers have struggled in town due to the restrictions that we put in place to reduce competition with the downtown retailers, which for the most part died anyway, yet the restrictions remain.


      These big footprint peripheral stores are going to be a thing of the past… Repurposing abandoned big box retail sites is already a niche specialization in architecture and planning professions.


      Perhaps in some places that is true, but not at the Davis Target.  It is obviously hard for some people to accept that the store is a success and a benefit to the citizens of Davis.


        1. TrueBlueDevil

          They make a profit, and are able to employ hundreds of people directly, in addition to hundreds of people elsewhere. Their business supports other businesses. They therefore contribute to the tax base, and their employees do as well. This has both economic and societal importance. They have no major negative externalities … they are not a pawn shop, tattoo parlor, biker bar or casino.

        2. Mark West

          “but do they overall help or hurt the community?”


          That all depends on what color glasses you are wearing.

          If you hate even the idea of big box retail like some here, then obviously you will never agree that the store is a net benefit to the community.  If you have ready access to a vehicle and have the disposable income to shop wherever you choose (including on-line), then a store like Target in the community is unimportant.  If on the other hand, you don’t have unlimited wealth and prosperity (or in fact you do, but you actually care about those with fewer advantages) then a store such as Target is a huge benefit.


        3. Davis Progressive

          but mark, i believe you are side-stepping the question.  the question is how we evaluate it – my question has nothing to do with whether or not i support or oppose it.

      1. Don Shor

        The neighborhood centers have struggled in town due to the restrictions that we put in place to reduce competition with the downtown retailers, which for the most part died anyway, yet the restrictions remain.

        Two centers have struggled, two are doing well. Same restrictions.

  6. aaahirsch8

    The real problem is the city council has not studied ALL opportunities for a sustainable future, (balance of revenue, housing, job), a study that would include possibility of intensified retail downtown (shopping above city parting lots, reworking the 8th street “dollar store” mall as well as retailing along Olive that has good freeway access and visibility, or more retailing near the freeway exits like in most other town.

    Instead they city is studying only one thing: rezone land on edge of Davis to allow for 15 to 30 years of industrial growth, i.e. neutering Measure  R for a generation — without looking other revenue options, or considering a balanced plan of housing/jobs/retail/tax base.    (jobs without housing will push UP the cost housing in Davis even more).

    If we are old general plan is broke and not sustainable, we need a general plan revision and new business model for the city===and a new vision for the future of Davis that deals a balanced way with housing, job and industrial growth– and addresses growth of BOTH UCD and Woodland on our edges. Otherwise Woodland will get the retail revenue, the University will get the industrial jobs, and we will get our neighborhoods converted to mini-dormitories.



  7. Robin W.

    I have lived in Davis for over 20 years. Until about 4 or 5 years ago, I agreed with all of the growth restrictions that protect downtown business in order to ensure the vitality of the downtown core. But Davis has gotten a lot bigger over the past 20 years. Considering it’s current population and size, these policies that protect downtown businesses at the expense of the rest of Davis no longer make sense.

    Downtown has morphed in a way that has made it difficult and unappealing for adult residents (as opposed to students, who are more likely to live closer to the core).  There is inadequate parking and too much traffic because of all the slow driving required to keep looking for parking — but putting in a large garage is not a reasonable answer and the shortage of parking is not the only or primary problem. The restaurants have become increasingly student-oriented, eg, placing your order at the counter before sitting down. A larger percent of the stores seem to cater to either students or to vacationers. This might make sense for the businesses, since a huge percent of the folks who live closest to downtown are students, but it has made downtown a much less attractive destination for adult residents, especially those of us who live too far to walk or bike to downtown.

    At the same time, because of the restrictions designed to protect downtown businesses, things are bad in a number of the outlying shopping centers. At least three of them have numerous vacant spaces, while residents who don’t live near downtown sorely need access to retailers and restaurants closer to where they live.

    It is time for city policies to change to encourage development and vibrancy in the existing peripheral shopping centers as well as in the downtown core.  This may mean allowing larger retailers in the peripheral shopping centers, not requiring a supermarket anchor in every shopping center, or coming down on landlords who are not meeting their responsibilities vis-vis-tenants. The city council and planners need to start addressing the needs And condition of the rest of Davis, not just the downtown core.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i think you raise a lot of good points that a lot of us who opposed peripheral growth as well as supported restricts designed to protect the downtown are starting to look at.

  8. Anon

    According to the City Council, Target saved the city’s bacon during the economic downturn with the sales tax revenue it generated for the city’s coffers, because auto row in Davis had such a severe slump at the time.  We should be very thankful Target is here.

    1. Barack Palin

      Speaking of auto row:

      Last year, Costco Wholesale moved almost 400,000 vehicles of all major brands in the U.S., twice as many as in 2008.

      Should our Davis new car lots be concerned?  There’s so many items that you can buy at Costco and I really think Davis should consider having our own store and stop all the sales tax leakage to Woodland.  It’s amazing how many UCD tshirts and hats I see people wearing at the Woodland Costco.  Wouldn’t it be nice if that money was spent here and for all you environmentalists just think of the deduction in VMT’s.  It’s not just food and clothing, but you can buy almost anything at Costco at a discount.  Like cars, insurance, home a/c’s and heaters, etc… name it they have it.  Heck, I recently replanted my backyard with Costco plants bought on the cheap and it looks great.

      1. Miwok

        This article does not address the profit angle as well. In figures that local businesses probably will never publish, the addition of Target not only reduced their percentage of business in Davis, but the margin as well, because they have to compete with a local business with lower prices. So they have to lower their prices or lose market share?

        The article shows the VMT is lower because locals are shopping locally, which the City does not seem to care about. They care about the pollution, but the UCD area has little shopping except Trader Joes, which should never have been shoehorned into the small corner they have. But these stores increase the number of shoppers locally. Has this article addressed the net increase of shopping in Davis? If anything, it has pointed out how far behind Davis is at serving the public.

        Being proud of “urban density” only means you can show percentages in your statistics, not real numbers. If the CoOp for example was so successful, there would be one on each end of town, and Downtown, right?

        Most of the “grand visions” of the Auto Mall has morphed into a couple of mega-dealers, and the rest closed. How is that helpful?

    2. Topcat

      I really think Davis should consider having our own store and stop all the sales tax leakage to Woodland.

      I doubt that Costco would build a store here even if the City Council was begging them to do so.

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