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Thoughts on big box retailing and the Stockyards

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Tonight I finally got the opportunity to visit the Stockyards retail center at the corner of St. Clair West and Weston Road in Toronto. It’s a 550,000 square foot complex that was only recently completed. The major anchor tenant is Target and it just so happens to be the first new construction Target in Canada.

What’s interesting about the Stockyards development is that it’s a reinvention of the suburban big box store format that we all know so well. You know, the big store surrounded by a sea of parking. And from my past experience working on projects similar to this one, I can tell you that the Stockyards project is generally loved by planners at the city.

So what’s the big deal?

Let’s first look at how it would work for a traditional big box store development. Assume you’re a developer and you’re trying to secure a 150,000 square foot big box store tenant for your site.

Historically, in order for that tenant to even consider signing with you, you’d need to be able to offer her a single level format. In other words, her 150,000 square feet needs to be all on one level. Multiple levels are more expensive to build and they add another layer of complexity when it comes to shopping carts, back of house loading, and so on.

On top of this, she’s going to have onerous parking requirements. It wouldn’t be unheard of for her to ask–or demand–for 3.5 parking stalls per 1,000 square feet of rentable area. If you do the math in this example (150,000 / 1,000 x 3.5), you get 525 parking spots. This number usually exceeds any of the parking requirements that your local municipality might have. And historically, it has always been surface parking. So forget about building a parking garage and don’t even waste a second thinking about underground parking. That’s way too expensive.

Finally, the tenant will want her building oriented in such a way that the entrance is directly in front of the largest possible number of parking stalls. Usually this means that the front of the building is facing inward, away from the street, and the rear of the building is facing outward towards the rest of the city. If you could provide all of this and the demographics in your catchment radius were favorable for her business, you’d be in a pretty good position to sign a deal.

The problem with this format is that most cities don’t want it anymore. It goes against everything that most progressive cities are trying to promote in terms of walkable and transit-oriented communities. Large surface parking lots don’t make for great cities and neither do introverted buildings. At the same time, land values are getting to a point where developers need to use their land more intensively. Big surface parking lots just aren’t the highest and best use.

So how then do you make big box retailing work?

That’s where the Stockyards comes in. What they’ve done is put smaller retailers along the perimeter of the site with direct access from the sidewalk; they’ve buried the parking in the middle of the site (and built structured parking); and they’ve moved the anchor and larger tenants (Target, Winners, etc.) to the second floor. I don’t think that all big box stores would go for this, but Target is known to be one of the more progressive in this regard.

So functionally, if you’re taking transit and walking along the street, you have shops engaging you and you’re not looking at the loading area of some big box store. And if you happen to be driving–as many people do to big box stores–you can either drive in and park on the ground floor (and then take an escalator up) or you can drive up the second floor parking area and walk right into the store as you normally would. What they’ve basically done is adapted big box stores to a more urban context. 

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Now, I can see why many at the city like this development and I certainly think it’s a step in the right direction in terms of getting both developers and tenants to think more urban. But I wouldn’t say that we’ve nailed the formula here. When I was there the space felt empty and I had trouble orienting myself after I parked. But it’s certainly a major improvement compared to the big box stores across the street.

If you’ve had a chance to visit the Stockyards, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below.

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