Vanishing Automobile Update #42

In Defense of Strip Developments

Fifty years ago, urban planners applied the term "blight" to areas where property values were falling due to crime, pollution, and/or lack of investment. Planners promised to end blight through urban renewal, which usually meant completely replacing existing neighborhoods with high-priced housing and/or urban monuments.

In 1961, Jane Jacob's book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" showed that many of the so-called blighted areas that the planners wanted to clear were in fact healthy, vibrant neighborhoods. The book helped kill urban renewal programs. But while she wrote her book as a warning against the hubris of planners who think they know how to fix urban problems, few people heeded this important message.

Today, planners still want to fix urban blight. But their definition of blight has expanded to include many more areas that are economically healthy and vibrant. Blight is now purely an aesthetic judgment, often aimed at commercial and residential areas that rely on automobiles.

A primary target of planners today is the strip development, those streets that seem lined with endless repetitions of Safeways, K-Marts, McDonalds, Exxons, and other commercial outlets. Planners say strip developments are ugly, and admittedly they aren't the prettiest streets in the world. Yet, as sociologist Herbert Gans points out, "areas that are uninteresting to the visitor may be quite vital to the people who live in them."

Just as laundry rooms can provide valuable household services without being pretty, strip developments can provide a valuable urban service without being pretty. While it would be possible to go to the effort to make strip developments more aesthetically appealing, the cost of doing so would end up significantly increasing consumer costs. Since people in many areas have a choice between streets of pretty boutiques and strip developments, and often choose the latter, it appears that we are willing to sacrifice aesthetics for efficiency.

A more important reason why planners hate strip developments is that they are "auto dependent." Planners think people should live in communities where they can walk to shopping areas and ride transit to work. Here is where planners betray their cluelessness about modern urban living.

Planners go "to great pains to learn what the saints and sages of modern orthodox planning have said about how cities ought to work and what ought to be good for people," Jane Jabocs observed. "When contradictory reality intrudes, threatening to shatter their dearly won learning, they must shrug reality aside." With respect to automobiles, Jacobs added that planners "do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow -- with or without automobiles."

In 1961, when Jacobs published "The Death and Life," the "saints and sages" were saying that high-density urban centers were dangerous slums and should be torn down and the people in them moved to low-density suburbs. Jacobs showed that the households and shops in these urban villages were thriving, diverse, and healthy. Though they were dense, the people in the shops and housing above the shops kept "eyes on the street" to make sure they were safe.

Today, the saints and sages of planning have learned to celebrate Jacobs' dense urban villages, but now they want to turn all suburbs and towns into high-density, mixed-use urban villages like the ones Jacobs described. "All development should be in the form of compact, walkable neighborhoods," says the Congress for the New Urbanism. Existing neighborhoods "should be reconfigured," continues the group, into similarly compact, "diverse districts."

Jacobs never meant her description of urban villages to be turned into a prescription for small towns or suburbs. "I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which still are suburban," she wrote. "Towns, suburbs and even little cities are totally different organisms from great cities." In fact, only a handful of U.S. cities -- namely New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC -- really qualify as great cities as Jacobs used the term.

Strip Developments and Residential Areas

Strip developments never exist in isolation. Instead, they are typically surrounded by low- to moderate-density housing. The commercial development itself is typically just 200- to 400-feet deep. Behind the businesses is often a narrow band of apartments, which separate the commercial area from neighborhoods of single-family homes.

Unlike the residents of the urban villages described by Jacobs, most of whom tended to be in one or two ethnic groups and many of whom were members of a few extended families, the people in suburban neighborhoods tend to come from diverse backgrounds and interests. So their families and friends probably aren't their neighbors. This is a major reason why the people in these suburbs prefer private, quiet streets over the noisy, public streets found in urban villages. Noise from family and friends can be welcome; noise from unknown sources can be threatening.

Today, many planners argue that suburbs force people to drive. In fact, the reverse is true: the automobile enabled more people than ever to live in the suburbs. Owning a car meant that it didn't matter if families and friends were on the other side of town because you could easily reach them in a few minutes.

Owning a car also meant that it didn't matter whether a grocery store was a few steps away from home because you could easily reach stores, services, and jobs in a few minutes. Owning a car actually enhanced the value of having a large lot in a low-density suburb, because low-density areas have less traffic congestion than high-density ones.

The best way to reach family, friends, stores, jobs, or other destinations was to drive on an arterial designed for high-speed auto traffic. Cities began widening streets to turn them into such arterials in the 1920s. Illinois historians John Jakle and Keith Sculle describe what happened to such a street, University Avenue, connecting Champaign and Urbana, Illinois (as described in chapter 8 of their book, "The Gas Station in America," Johns Hopkins Press).

In 1919, University had more than 150 homes, 85 percent of which were single-family homes and 77 percent of which were owner-occupied. By 1949, the avenue still had 138 homes, more than three-quarters of which were single-family and/or owner-occupied. But thereafter the number of homes began to plummet. By 1989, there were just 18, only four single-family and only two owner-occupied.

Table One
Homes and Businesses on University Avenue
Year   Dwellings  Businesses
1919      151          9
1929      153         23
1939      145         50
1949      138         71
1959      112         94
1969       69         92
1979       39         96
1989       18         73

Source: John A. Jakle & Keith A. Sculle, The Gas Station in American (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1994), pp. 212 & 214.

Meanwhile, the number of businesses on University Avenue grew from 9 in 1919 to nearly 100 in 1979. The number declined to 73 in 1989 because some businesses grew larger while smaller ones such as gas stations moved to other areas.

This pattern is typical of major arterials. Residents prefer not to live with the noise and traffic, so they move away. The few residences left behind are mainly rentals. But stores, restaurants, and auto service stations did want to be on such arterials where they could be visible to large numbers of potential customers. This leads naturally to a strip development.

Planners often blame strip developments on past zoning practices that mandated a separation of uses. In fact, you will find strip developments in cities that have no zoning; zoning that reinforces strip developments merely reflects the preferences of homeowners and businesses.

Strip Developments and Transportation

To understand strip developments, let's scrutinize one in the same kind of detail that Jacobs applied to urban villages. I'll use one I am familiar with, McLoughlin Boulevard, which parallels the Willamette River south of Portland. This area was first developed in the 1890s, when the nation's first interurban electric trolley line was built from Portland to Oregon City.

In addition to serving the towns of Milwaukie and Gladstone, the rail line passed through farms and woodlands. Access to the rail line allowed some of these areas to be developed into communities called Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge.

In the 1930s, McLoughlin became Oregon's first four-lane highway, and some local residents still call it the "superhighway." Strip developments are often found on state highways, presenting a problem for transportation engineers. The engineers want to keep traffic moving swiftly and safely. Businesses want people driving by to have access to their goods and services.

This tension can be seen on McLoughlin. As shown in the table below, the highway can be divided into several segments based on the access privileges enjoyed by adjacent landowners.

Table Two
McLoughlin Businesses
                Length     Property    Businesses
Segment          miles      Access      Per Mile
Portland          3.0     Almost none        3
N. Milwaukie      1.0     Restricted         8
DT Milwaukie      0.7     Few limits        36
S. Milwaukie      0.8     Geographic        11
Oak Lodge         3.4     No limits        101
Gladstone         0.4     No limits         99

1. Portland

Landowners whose properties border McLoughlin in Portland have very limited access to the highway. Only one or two businesses have driveways onto McLoughlin, probably because they would have no other access route. All other McLoughlin businesses are reached by an intersecting or side street. Jersey barriers prevent left turns except at designated intersections.

The advantage of this limited access compared with the unlimited access enjoyed by businesses outside of Portland is a slightly higher posted speed limit: 45 mph in Portland vs. 40 mph outside. Oregon has the lowest speed limits in the West; some other states might post this road at 55 and that in fact is the speed most drivers go. Speeds on the 40-mph segment are probably closer to 45.

One 0.6 mile segment of Portland's McLoughlin passes through Westmoreland Park, making for a green and pleasant drive. Otherwise, the limited access offers no aesthetic advantages. Despite the limited access and proximity to the Willamette River, much of the highway outside the park has an industrial and faintly seedy appearance. Some once-stately mansions and large homes front on McLoughlin but appear practically abandoned. It would be hard to argue that McLoughlin has enhanced the value of properties immediately adjacent to it when those properties lack access to the road.

2. Milwaukie

Access to properties in Milwaukie is not quite as restricted as in Portland. The first mile is mostly industrial and warehouses and they have access through frontage roads that parallel McLoughlin. There are also a few consumer businesses, including two fabric stores and a restaurant. A car dealership is recently defunct or, to be precise, moved to the Gladstone segment of McLoughlin. Jersey barriers preventing left turns limits the appeal of this segment to consumer businesses.

Many cities, including suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, use frontage roads to allow access to businesses without interfering with highway traffic. In the Twin Cities, the highways are posted for 55 mph. But the frontage roads are clearly a disadvantage for consumer businesses.

Milwaukie's second segment is the downtown area, which was first built up during the rail era. At this point, the rail line was right on east bank of the Willamette River, and people getting off the interurbans could shop in Milwaukie stores as they walked home.

McLoughlin disrupted this downtown area. Built just east of the rail line, the four-lane street no doubt cleared away many businesses. Businesses on Main Street, one block east of and parallel to McLoughlin, languished. Businesses on the west side of McLoughlin are limited to a bar and an antique store. Nearly twenty businesses front on the east side, but only a few, including a bank and several gas stations, have driveway access to McLoughlin. Most of the rest are accessed on Main or on side streets.

Nearly seventy years since McLoughlin was built, Milwaukie still has not figured out how to recover its downtown. Dark Horse Comics took over several buildings on Main Street, which was an economic boon but not a retailing one. The area's only supermarket, a Safeway, was a full block away from McLoughlin. A few years ago, it moved to Oak Grove, where it has direct access to McLoughlin.

Now the city is attempting to revive its downtown by following the advice of New Urbanist planners. It wants a mixed-use development on the site of the Safeway store as well as in other places. Many local residents oppose these developments, and even if they are built, their success is far from assured. (See John Charles' reports on The Mythical World of Transit-Oriented Developments: Orenco and The Mythical World of Transit-Oriented Developments.)

Geography seems to limit businesses on Milwaukie's third segment. Here McLoughlin climbs a steep hill. To the east is a large lake bordered by apartment buildings, some of which are accessed via a street off of McLoughlin. To the west is the old rail right of way, now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, which doesn't seem interested in using it for anything but a powerline corridor. A few businesses near the top of the hill include a restaurant, a bar, a gun shop, and a couple of auto shops.

3. Oak Grove-Jennings Lodge-Gladstone

The real strip development begins at the Milwaukie city line. Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge (sometimes collectively called Oak Lodge) remain unincorporated, so there was little regulation of businesses before the 1980s. This means that every landowner for the next 3.4 miles was free to build driveways connecting their properties with McLoughlin. Gladstone appears similarly unregulated, so this discussion will also include that 0.4 mile segment.

The state responded to the demands of unlimited access by making McLoughlin, in effect, a six-lane road: two northbound lanes, two southbound lanes, a continuous center left-turn lane, and discontinuous right-turn lanes. The left- and right-turn lanes allow motorists to enter and exit driveways with minimal disruption to the 40-mph traffic.

This segment of McLoughlin is also paralleled by two two-lane roads, River Road to the west and Oatfield Road to the east. Local residents often use these streets as through roads in preference to McLoughlin. Although posted at a lower speed limit, the lack of traffic and stop lights, with only a few stop signs, make these attractive by-passes. Both remain primarily residential with only a few businesses along their routes.

The Oak Lodge-Gladstone segment of McLoughlin thus serves two purposes. First, it is a through highway, allowing people in Oregon City, Canby, and other points south to reach Portland and other points north. Second, it is a consumer paradise, giving local and regional residents access to hundreds of different businesses.

Strip Malls and Retailing

Well over 350 consumer-oriented businesses line this segment of McLoughlin (table three). Some serve the entire region, including sixteen new-car and twenty used-car dealerships. Some serve through traffic, including nearly three dozen fast-food stands. Others serve mainly local residents, including supermarkets, convenience stores, hardware stores, and multiplex cinemas.

Table Three
Oak Lodge-Gladstone Businesses
Type          Number
Auto            96
Restaurant      70
Grocery         22
Household       28
Recreation      24
Other retail    35
Other service   75
Health          10
Finance         32

Including the car dealerships, nearly one hundred businesses are oriented to the automobile. These include gas stations, repair shops, glass shops, and parts stores. Several clusters of auto shops typically include a quick lube, body shop, detailing, muffler/brake shop, and an upholstery shop.

If Americans love cars, they love food just as much, so more than ninety businesses provide fast food, fine dining, groceries, health foods, beverages, and other food services. Nearly half the gas stations also have food marts. There are two Baskin-Robbins stores and three 7-11s at various points along the strip.

The Oak Lodge strip is anchored by representatives of three of the nation's largest supermarket chains: Fred Meyer (owned by Kroger, the nation's second-largest supermarket chain), Albertson's (the nation's third-largest chain), and Safeway (the nation's fourth-largest chain). Due partly to resistence from smart-growth planners, the first-largest chain, Wal-Mart, has no stores on McLoughlin and only two on Oregon side of the Portland area, neither of which sell groceries.

The supermarket, like the suburb, was enabled by the automobile. The first supermarkets emerged in the 1930s as low-cost alternatives to urban grocery stores. These early supermarkets saved money by locating on land that was nearly worthless, so they depended on cars to bring their customers to them.

Since the 1930s, the principle story of supermarkets has been the enormous growth in the number of items they sell. The typical grocery store in 1930 sold less than 1,000 different items, while the average supermarket in 1955 sold 5,000 products. Today, 20,000 products is considered average and many supermarkets sell more than 50,000.

This sort of diversity is only possible in an automotive society. Even in the densest U.S. inner cities, the number of people within walking distance of a grocery store is insufficient to support this variety.

The oldest of the Oak Grove supermarkets, Fred Meyer, also sells housewares, clothing, home improvement items, hardware, sporting goods, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. Followed by the similarly named Fred Meijer in the Midwest, Fred Meyer pioneered the "supercenter" concept (food plus variety) now being rapidly spread by Wal-Mart.

Like supermarkets, other retail concerns have grown in size and, sometimes, in variety. Lumberyards and hardware stores have turned into giant Home Depots. Stationery stores have turned into Office Max and Staples. Automobile service stations, which once lubricated, tuned, and repaired as well as fueled autos, have split into quick lubes, muffler shops, transmission shops, auto glass shops, and other specialty shops. Gasoline stations, meanwhile, have become convenience stores selling snacks, beverages, and other products resembling food.

Despite the chains, supercenters, and big-box stores, most businesses on McLaughlin are small and appear family owned. These include many of the two-dozen or so stores providing household goods such as clothes, hardware, appliances, garden supplies, paint, and pharmaceuticals. Many recreation businesses, which include entertainment centers such as theaters, bowling alleys, and a small golf course as well as stores that sell and service boats and other sporting goods, also appear locally owned.

Other retailers and services include a wide variety of specialty shops. Here are some of the things you can do on the McLoughlin strip:

To help pay for these and other goods and services, more than two-dozen banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions line the strip. At least one bank has two different branches at opposite ends of the strip and another has a branch in Milwaukie as well as Oak Grove. There are several mortgage companies as well as check-cashing stores and short-term loan companies, suggesting the mixed-income nature of the residential area.

At one hundred businesses per mile, I estimate McLoughlin businesses have an average density of 1.33 per acre. By comparison, Clackamas Town Center, a large suburban shopping mall, has 185 stores on 112 acres, or about 1.65 businesses per acre. Lloyd Center, an inner-city shopping mall, has the same number of businesses on only 23 acres, for nearly 8 businesses per acre. Lloyds uses multi-level parking to fit everything in a smaller space.

Is the strip a waste of land or is the low density justified by the convenience of driving right to the door of your store rather than walking halfway through a large shopping mall? One thing is certain: the range of businesses on McLoughlin is much wider than those at the major malls. While the strip has no upscale department or clothing stores, the malls don't provide many of the services needed by local residents from day to day.

Thus, a typical strip development offers a tremendous amount of consumer choice. This choice largely results from the competition that results when people are mobile enough to choose among retailers. In turn, this choice reduces consumer costs. When Wal-Mart begins selling groceries in a community, for example, the average price of groceries in that community falls by 13 percent.

Opposition to Strip Malls

Most of the anti-strip development prescriptions offered by planners would reduce this consumer choice. While the prescriptions may seem aesthetically appealing, they effectively reduce competition and increase consumer costs.

Many of these prescriptions are oriented around transportation and aim to discourage auto driving while they promote walking, cycling, and transit. Planners want to turn six-lane McLoughlin Boulevard into a 4.5 lane street, deleting the right-turn lanes and allowing only an intermittent left-turn lane. Anyone slowing to turn right into a supermarket parking lot will force everyone behind them to slow down. This will reduce the street's traffic flow capacity by a quarter to a third.

In areas that have not yet turned to strip developments, one proposal suggested by many planners is to allow commercial developments only at major intersections. "A better idea would have been to create retail clusters or nodes around major intersections, and allow some transitional uses like professional offices along the rest of the road," writes one planner. "Limiting both the depth and length of retail zones is crucial to preventing strip development." But the limited areas devoted to retailing under this scheme could never offer the variety, economy, or convenience of the strip development.

Another prescription is to ban big-box stores such as Wal-Marts and Home Depots. Metro, Portland's regional planning authority, tries to limit all future shopping centers to less than 80,000 square feet of space, which is half the size of a Wal-Mart supercenter -- which helps explain why there are none in Portland.

Rather than big-box stores and strip malls fronted by parking lots, planners want design codes to require more pedestrian-friendly "main streets," with stores fronting on the sidewalks, parking in the rear, and apartments upstairs. This leads to a very different mix of stores than is found on a strip development. Given the competitive disadvantage of hidden parking, stores on such main streets tend to become boutiques serving niche markets rather than sell general consumer goods.

Asking consumers to give up strip developments in favor of boutiques is like asking peasants to give up bread in favor of cake. Being anti-strip mall is both anti-consumer and anti-business.

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