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