America's First Strip Malls

I have heard a great deal of talk in my lifetime about "unsightly" strip malls. The term conjures images of land, and forest being stripped barren for the sake of a row of shops we do not actually need. In the left's "smart growth" movement it is a term used to indicate the worst side of suburban sprawl. One of the most heinous consequences of strip malls, especially the ones that include Wal-Mart's and Super Wal-Mart's, being that they take away business from "historic downtowns." Strip malls destroy main street. Consider for a moment the definition of strip mall (via Google):

a mercantile establishment consisting of a row of various stores and business and restaurants along a road or busy street; usually opening on a parking lot

Funny that sounds a lot like a "historic downtown," doesn't it? The fact is unless you include within the definition the stipulation of having a large parking lot in front of it, or some age requirement, you cannot create a definition for strip malls that could not accurately describe main street just as well. Since there are many strip malls without large parking lots in front of them, the only way to distinguish "main street" from "strip mall" is by the term historic.

main_street_lyric_theatre3.jpgThat is what much of the anti-strip mall sentiment amounts to: favoring the old over the new. If we look at the first "main streets" and small towns all across America, from the east to the west. What we see is commerce. We see mercantile establishments adjacent to one another, lining some central thoroughfare. What we see on "Main Street America" are America's first strip malls.

I can understand a desire to protect historic places, but the pro-main street fervor in this country seems to take it a step further. It upholds the commerce of main street, the family owned and operated businesses located downtown, as good, and the commerce of suburbia and the newer strip malls (regardless of who owns them) as bad.

The proponents of "smart growth" can easily toss the commercialism of suburbia under the term "sprawling development" and claim that these new strip malls are increasing traffic congestion, runoff pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. How do they do this? By simply being far away from "downtown." Being far away means more paved land between here and there, the need for large parking lots (since we need cars to get there), and the need to use a car instead of walking because the new developments are far away from downtown. Their ultimate goal is to create cities and towns where anything and everything a person could possibly need is within walking distance.

downtown2.jpg
The problem is that those strip malls, are not allowed to build near historic "downtowns" because of the zoning laws of local cities. Why? Because those cities (and towns) believe that new commercial establishments nearby will compete directly with downtown businesses. They would "destroy" main street.

I live in Athens, Georgia which has a large historic downtown. Ironically the most avid and sympathetic members of the community to "smart growth plans" where I live, are those that regularly get elected to the county commission. Those that regularly get elected also typically own downtown businesses, buildings, and/or are close friends with the "downtown" merchants. They are the people that zone in favor of "smart growth," or "sustainable growth" as they like to call it around here. How do they do that? By zoning thousands and thousands of acres in the county as agricultural. Agricultural means that you cannot build more than one building per x number of acres. By zoning all of the large portions of undeveloped land agricultural they have managed to keep business like Wal-Mart from building new stores inside the county line.

What does all this mean? It means that in the name of "smart growth" the owners and friends of the downtown businesses are enacting zoning laws whose real goal is to keep competition as far away from their own businesses as possible. That?s right. It is effectively local protectionism. Imagine for a moment if the same phenomenon were occurring in towns and cities across America. Then suddenly the reason for the dichotomy between "main street" and "strip mall" becomes eminently clear.

As long as local voters see commercialism as a vice, and strip malls as a scourge on the community, without putting main street into the same category, the communities and voters will rally against new businesses such as Wal-Mart coming into town. They will vote to keep competition out and to protect the local businesses of "main street,? all in the name of "smart growth."

Share this

the irony and hypocrysy of

the irony and hypocrysy of the situation becomes too deep,and too fast for me to follow. its the same two 'crews' as always. fuck head utopian liberals vs the 1930's cronyist business'.

I've notice a number of

I've notice a number of "strip mall" developers answering the call for a "historic downtown" feel. Many of the new shopping centers have an old style architecture with lots of brick and antique looking signs and even playing some soft jazz in the background. It actually does make it a ton better IMHO.

I guess the basic question is where do folks prefer to shop?

I guess the basic question

I guess the basic question is where do folks prefer to shop?

On the web - no checkout lines, no drive, no parking problems, no unfriendly staff, no crowds. :-)

Testify!

Testify!

Oh, and how could I forget?

Oh, and how could I forget? No sales tax!

I live in Athens too. The

I live in Athens too. The subject of your post is one I've tossed around quite a bit with European friends who themselves note how reliant American cities are upon cars for transportation and how our towns seldom amount to more than a highway with some intersecting thoroughfares lined with strip malls and the occasional entrance to a residential subdivision named Shadow Lakes or Cambridge Heights where family homes stand like isolated castles and even a trip out for milk can be a ten-minute hustle to the local Golden Pantry. (Nope, no run-on sentence there.)

Naturally, being the adorably knee-jerk statists that they are, Europeans are certain that these traits are attributable to our free-wheeling, capitalist country and its wildly inexpensive land values.

And while they may be right in (small) part, I am quick to point out that America has tripled in population since the introduction of Euclidian zoning and at perhaps doubled in population since the beginning of the massive federal highway spending of the post-war era. European cities, by contrast, grew slowly, organically over the decades and centuries without such government "innovations." And since the massive government intervention has come about, their populations have not increased nearly as remarkably as ours. Hence, Europe has not had as much chance to develop sprawl.

My point is always well taken. My follow-up of suggesting that we do away with all zoning and privatize the highway system is always, somehow, not.

Seriously, though. I think that we could dispense with all of the *stated* objectives of zoning by merely passing a souped-up version of the common-law action of private nuisance and mandate expedient recovery (plus perhaps court costs) for anyone who could prove that his neighbor has reduced the value of his property by some statutory amount. Say, 15%. Wouldn't that address in one swell foop the pollution, crowding, unsightliness, noisiness, and other pressing ills that the zoning boards claim to solve?

Add to this a legal regime that looks kindly upon neighborhood covenants, and before long, you've got the kind of organic, balanced communities and cities that we're all really talking about when we think of "smart growth." (or "stupid decline" as it is more aptly dubbed.)

Here in Austin, TX,

Here in Austin, TX, opposition to large-scale retail growth is usually predicated on two grounds: it hurts the environment and it destroys local businesses. In fact, Austin has a Smart Growth Inititative that takes fire from all sides all the time, even though in essence, both sides agree growth needs to be "smart." Meaning, controlled outside the hands of the businessowners.

The lefties here are quite open about "keeping local money local" and other protectionist measures.

I share their affinity for

I share their affinity for downtowns, and their dislike of sprawl. But I think most of what they object to is caused by government. Consider the combined effects of 1) zoning restrictions against mixed-use development with neighborhood stores in new developments; 2) zoning restricions on walk-up housing in downtown areas; 3) suburban design plattes that require huge setbacks and mandate a wilderness of cul de sacs and split-level ranches; 4) government subsidies to freeway systems; 5) subsidized utilities to outlying big box stores; 6) FHA red-lining; 7) abuse of eminent domain in the interest of developers.

"Here in Austin large scale

"Here in Austin large scale retail growth is predicated on two grounds..."

Goodness I just can't get away from the "smart growth" crowd. Hopefully they are not as bad in Austin as they are in Athens. Nonetheless I think the greens are suckers. All this "smart growth" nonesense was their idea, and now it has turned into a means of quasi-protectionism (I say quasi cause it usually is unsuccessful at keeping competition out) that typically makes the problems of "sprawl" worse. BTW I happen to like sprawl. I like lots of stores, retail outlets etc. It's the traffic I have trouble with.

"But I think most of what they object to is caused by government."

You have got some good points. Yet are the true advocates of "smart growth" (the ones who aren't simply protecting their business but actually think sprawl is a bad thing) ever going to realize this? Are they ever going to advocate measures that don't involve bureaucratic top-down government intrusion such as zoning laws. I doubt it. They've made city councils, and county commissions their God who can do no wrong. Funny that the more successful they are with there "smart growth" plans, the worse the problems get.

I don't understand the

I don't understand the argument here. What's the objection to people prefering the old aesthetic to their town? The fact that the definition of strip mall you give sounds like downtown? That seems more like a critique of your definition than of the position, unless you are trying to claim that there really is no difference.

The objection is to people

The objection is to people trying to impose their aesthetic on ME by FORCE, nothing more.

well it?s by popular vote (I

well it?s by popular vote (I assume. if not then I?m opposed to it) While not perfect it seems better than people imposing their taste on you just because they have the money to do it (which is the case when Neon'burger'o'rama opens a store.)

Matt this isn't about

Matt this isn't about playing semantic games. If you know a better definition present it. I did not invent a definition. I thought about what a strip mall is: a line of shops. I thought about what main street was: a line of shops. It occurred to me that the only real difference between them is that main street is older. Then I went online and found a couple definitions; all of the one's I came across were roughly the same. And all of them would have included main street as well as it does strip malls. You say "unless you are trying to claim" that there is no difference. My precise words were: What we see on "Main Street America" are America's first strip malls.

I really don't see how my intent and my argument could be any more clear than that.

I don't care if people prefer the old aesthetic. That's fine with me, but let's make it clear. Morally, ethically, and practically there is no difference between main street and a strip mall. Many in the "smart growth" movement and many of those that are sympathetic to the movement act like and claim that there is something morally wrong with new businesses driving out old ones through market competition. Why is that wrong? Because those old businesses are in the "historic" district? Because the people on the city council have an aesthetic preference for downtown?

The popular anti-strip mall sentiment, might simply reflect an aesthetic preference. If that's so the market will serve that preference. But my post was about more than just popular sentiment, it was about those propagating the sentiment. Those in both the movement and in local governments whose real goal has nothing to do with aesthetics. To spell it out for you: the members of county commissions, city councils, and many of the strong local advocates of "smart growth" are propagating a false dichotomy between "main street" and strip mall, they are propagating the idea and sentiment that strip malls are destructive to the community (even though "main street" is a strip mall), for the purpose of protecting their own businesses from competition.

It's not about concern for the community, it's not about morality, it's not about history, it's not about aesthetics, it's about using the force of government to keep others out of the marketplace so that they can maintain local monopolies, charge higher prices, and basically not have to worry about natural market forces.

If you don't personally have a moral problem with that: fine. But if that's the case I wouldn't want to live in your neighborhood.

Matt this isn?t about

Matt this isn?t about playing semantic games. If you know a better definition present it. I did not invent a definition. I thought about what a strip mall is: a line of shops. I thought about what main street was: a line of shops.
I'm not trying to play semantic games at all. Quite the opposite actually: I asked the reasonable question of whether the difference between an historic downtown and a strip mall is obvious enough as to be vivid to a rational viewer upon viewing the two. That's probably a good first question to ask, rather than "has any clever person wasted enough of their time defining strip mall in such a way as to differ it from an historic downtown?" Which seems to be the one you wanted to ask. So who's playing semantic games?

Many in the ?smart growth? movement and many of those that are sympathetic to the movement act like and claim that there is something morally wrong with new businesses driving out old ones through market competition. Why is that wrong? Because those old businesses are in the ?historic? district? Because the people on the city council have an aesthetic preference for downtown?
I'll be glad to argue this with you if you like, but let's keep in mind that this is a diferent question alotether than the one we were discussing earlier which was more like "do people have the right to organize and make collective decisions on things that impact them?" Now you are arguing about whether their preferences are correct- an interesting question but an irrelevant one.

The popular anti-strip mall sentiment, might simply reflect an aesthetic preference. If that?s so the market will serve that preference.
maybe it will, maybe it won't, but these "because the bible tells me so" arguments you guys are so fond of around here don't prove it. Maybe there's evidence of this? Or is it simply a tautology?

An interesting, perhaps related question is, if the market will serve the aesthetic needs of the community, why is there such popular aesthetic opposition to the working of the market (in the community under discussion, for example)? Perhaps you might respond "people obviously like it cause they buy it/support it" yet, ignoring all the other holes in such a response, doesn't this mirror the "tyranny of the majority" situations people use to critique democracy?

they are propagating the idea and sentiment that strip malls are destructive to the community (even though ?main street? is a strip mall), for the purpose of protecting their own businesses from competition.
is this true? I mean this is a question of fact, and it's quite apart from the question of whether it's a good idea or not.

it?s about using the force of government to keep others out of the marketplace so that they can maintain local monopolies, charge higher prices, and basically not have to worry about natural market forces.
I agree that this probably happens all the time, but this is a question for case-by-case study, not for general analysis. Not to mention that the businesses they are competing with a very likely (in fact probably almost 100%) major beneficiaries of major National Gov't handouts and other market distortions. The forces of competition still seem as if they would be intact on a local level though, right? There's not oten a public outcry when a small, locally owned coffee shop opens is doors "competing" with another one.

Matt I didn't say you were

Matt I didn't say you were playing semantic games, what I said was that I am not playing semantic games as indicated by the statement "I did not invent a definition." You still think I'm playing a game with words merely because I bothered to present a definition. As I said before I have looked at downtowns and at strip malls, and I saw that the only difference was superficial. Main street is older, and as a result the aesthetic style is different.

"I'll be glad to argue this with you if you like..."

You're original comment was that you don't understand my argument. You said "what's wrong with people preferring the old aesthetic of their towns." But in my post I never said I had a problem with that, and in my last response I went on to say that the problem was not the aesthetics but that those who own businesses downtown are trying to propagate the idea that "main street" is somehow morally superior to strip malls, and that it is wrong for new businesses to enter the market and compete with them. I was answering your question.

You may want to have an argument about something else, and you obviously want to pretend that my post was about something that it was not about, namely aesthetic preference. The fact is we weren't having an earlier debate. I was answering your question. If you think my answer was inadequate fine, but don't say "your answer is irrelevant to the theme of the debate which is now..." There was no theme, there was only me answering your intitial question.

The fact is I am not interested in having a debate on collective decision making with someone who sees no difference between the "imposition" of a flashy sign, and using the government to force others to conform to your preference.

"maybe it will, maybe it won't, but these "because the bible tells me so" arguments you guys are so fond of around here don't prove it."

Wow you just equated free market economics with bible thumping. I'm sorry. I took for granted that my audience would understand basic economics. When I said: "if their is a preference the market will serve it" was not meant to be an absolute, that any time there is a demand for something it is automatically served. The fact is in a free market (a market free of government coercion) when there is a strong enough demand for something, especially something as superficial as an aesthetic preference, it is almost always provided for by the market place. Why do I say "almost always" because businesses and individuals attempting to provide goods and services in the marketplace must figure out that the preference is there before the preference can be served. In the case of strip malls, there are already developers building new shopping centers with an "old town feel" in order to appeal to the preference of many consumers for the "main street" aesthetic. If you don't understand why this happens I would be happy to explain it further.

"why is there such popular aesthetic opposition to the working of the market (in the community under discussion, for example)?"

That's funny I could have sworn that's what my original post was about. (To be specific my post was about the underlying reasons for popular opposition to the market in regards to strip malls, aesthetics being tangenitally related.) Smart growth, sprawl, popular sentiment, local protectionism... Did you miss all that? If you did I suggest you read my original post again.

"Perhaps you might respond "people obviously like it cause they buy it/support it" yet, ignoring all the other holes in such a response, doesn't this mirror the "tyranny of the majority" situations people use to critique democracy?"

You want me to defend a response I didn't make nor would have made?

"is this true?"

Yes.

"I agree that this probably happens all the time, but this is a question for case-by-case study, not for general analysis."

I think major trends are great for general analysis.

"Not to mention that the businesses they are competing with a very likely (in fact probably almost 100%) major beneficiaries of major National Gov't handouts and other market distortions."

Oh really... "in fact almost probably %100 of the time." I don't suppose you have some evidence to support such a bold statement. Many of the businesses that are trying to compete with "downtown" in Athens, GA where I live are locally owned and operated. In their opposition the county commission, and those in the smart growth movement, do not distinguish between who owns them. Are you saying that big businesses like Wal-mart get government subsidies? I've researched quite a bit about Wal-Mart in particular. I have never seen any evidence of Wal-Mart getting government hand outs. If you cannot back up your claims I'm going to presume you're making that up. In any case two wrongs don't make a right.

Matt I didn?t say you were

Matt I didn?t say you were playing semantic games, what I said was that I am not playing semantic games as indicated by the statement ?I did not invent a definition.?
what you said seemed (and still seems, upon rereading it) to imply that I'm playing semantic games. "Matt this isn't about playing semantic games. If you know a better def. present it." Indicates to me that my critique of the definition is somehow playing a semantic game. If I was wrong though, which is quite possible, then I'm sorry.

Wow you just equated free market economics with bible thumping.
you will find that I often do this, and for good reason. In fact, your indignance at the suggestion and barb that I don't understand "basic economics" seems to support my point.

?if their is a preference the market will serve it? was not meant to be an absolute, that any time there is a demand for something it is automatically served. The fact is in a free market (a market free of government coercion) when there is a strong enough demand for something, especially something as superficial as an aesthetic preference, it is almost always provided for by the market place.
This argument is specious on a number of counts. It:
a. assumes that consumers "vote" with the money they spend.
b. assumes perfect homogenous competition in which a McFonald's will open up right next to McDonald's serving the same menu but with a different aesthetic.
c. is based on highly problematic "social welfare" maximization assumptions which lie at that heart of neoclassical (and Austrian, to my knowledge) economics. If we really want to argue this, I'll have to argue your assumptions because that's really the problem here.

You want me to defend a response I didn?t make nor would have made?
no, I was just saving you the time of making if that's what you were going to do. At any rate, I didn't feel you satisfactorily answered the question. "Favoring the Old over the New" could only be a critique if you were a huge Jaques Derrida fan. "Business Owners are scared of competition" is simply an assertion. as follows:

matt:?is this true??

Yes.
really? I mean is there no popular support for it? Do these small business owners run a dictatroship or something?

I think major trends are great for general analysis.
assuming it's a trend. I said it probably happens alot, but that's no reason to assume it does. I should also note that my statement wasn't meant to imply that this was the only cause, but rather that it was probably a factor. That's quite a bit different.

Oh really? ?in fact almost probably %100 of the time.? I don?t suppose you have some evidence to support such a bold statement. Many of the businesses that are trying to compete with ?downtown? in Athens, GA where I live are locally owned and operated.
Sure- markets don't exist in a vaccuum. Look at the highway program beginning under the New Deal and coming to fruition in the 50s. That's a massive federal program that's effect was to subsidize interstate commerce and the automotive industry. Actively handing out money (which happens as well) is only way to help businesses.

In their opposition the county commission, and those in the smart growth movement, do not distinguish between who owns them.
Interesting, though as I said- this is a question of "is the movement right?" not "do they have a right to do this?"

Since I sort started defending the movement I might as well mention that another argument that's a problem is that the holy "demand curve" doesn't reflect the interests of future generations. Much of what is at issue here is historical preservation for future genrational purposes, something that the market doesn't cover.

I?ve researched quite a bit about Wal-Mart in particular. I have never seen any evidence of Wal-Mart getting government hand outs. If you cannot back up your claims I?m going to presume you?re making that up. In any case two wrongs don?t make a right.
see above. Do you think Wal Mart would exist at all in it's present form without Highways?

there's a part of my post

there's a part of my post that should read "actively handing out money is not the only way to help a business. Oddly, this has happened in alot of my posts- I lose the end of a contraction certainly due to a typing error on my part. sorry.