Tysons grew up on big-box shopping. Now, as “America’s next great city” transforms itself into the 21st century, these enormous retailers are sticking around - but in new, more urban shapes.
City and suburb learn from each other. That’s what the history of big box store development has shown over the past decade or two, and the trend shows every sign of continuing - especially in Tysons, the country’s premier example of a suburb that’s growing into a city of its own.
The story of big-box stores took off in the suburbs in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, it took a turn for the urban, as these giant retailers found techniques to translate their business model to walkable neighborhoods. Now, those same techniques are a pivot point for big-box stores to transform the suburban neighborhoods where they were first created into the urban edge-city downtowns of the future.
What are big-box stores?
Suburbs haven’t always had big-box stores. They weren’t really part of the postwar suburban boom of Levittowns and neighborhood strip malls and white flight from the old central cities. There are no traditional big-box stores in Arlington, a county where the suburbs were pretty much built out by 1960.
Rather, these enormous retailers are an icon of the very last decades of the 20th century. Walmart was founded in the late ‘60s, but didn’t take off nationwide until the ‘80s. The general-goods behemoth grew an order of magnitude in a decade, from 125 stores in 1975 to 1,198 in 1987.
This growth aligns closely with the development of white-collar employment in ‘edge cities’ that Joel Garreau documents in his book of that name - in which Tysons plays a starring role. Big-box stores and edge cities aren’t quite the same thing, in the same way that downtown offices and traditional neighborhood shops aren’t the same thing, but they were created in the same transformation of American society. The two are siblings - or symbiotes.
The big-box store comes of age
The plot twists a little at the beginning of this century. Affluent people, often white, begin to move back to the traditional walkable cities that their parents had abandoned. The big-box retailers, smelling profit, follow them. What do we get? In 2008, we get the Columbia Heights Target.This is our region’s earliest and most famous example of an urban-format big box store, a built form that popped up in traditional walkable neighborhoods within major cities across the continent over the past two decades.
When I say ‘urban-format,’ I mean both that the store itself is smaller (Rosslyn’s urban-format Target is ⅙th the size of a traditional suburban location), but more importantly that it fits into the neighborhood. Parking is in a garage, rather than spread out around the building, so it’s comfortable to walk to the store.
The store itself is multi-story, growing up rather than out to accommodate its range of products. The neighborhood is mixed-use, with apartments, shops, houses, and offices all within a few blocks. Most important, this new Target is across the street from the Metro. Really, the biggest mistake in the design is the excessive, underutilized parking ‘which typically has about 50 cars in the 1,000-plus space garage.’
One of the mundane but important innovations that allowed Target to become urban was the shopping-cart escalator, enabling shoppers to carry their big boxes from floor to floor. The 2005 edition of Elevator World Magazine (yes, that is a real publication) reports: “Once, the urban development of the large-scale retailer was considered near impossible. Now, utilizing innovations such as Cartveyor, that development has become even more realistic and is currently a strong trend within the retail community.”
The Columbia Heights Target was an experiment in a new urban form. The experiment succeeded. Inside the District, it was quickly imitated by Walmart. Outside the District, the story is more interesting. Columbia Heights proved that Target could be urban, but Merrifield, a few years later, proved that Target could urbanize the suburbs.
In 2012, the Mosaic District opened in Fairfax County. It’s one of our region’s largest attempts by a single developer to deliver a walkable urban neighborhood - from scratch - in the middle of car-dependent suburbs. It includes a Target. This Target has much more in common with the one at Columbia Heights than it does with the traditional sea-of-parking location in nearby Seven Corners. It’s walkable, multi-story, in a dense mixed-use neighborhood. But unlike Columbia Heights, which was urban before the Target, Mosaic District needed a retailer of this scope as an anchor for such a massive development.
In the suburbs, too, this experiment succeeded. A multi-level Walmart opened in Tysons in 2014, and another Target - this time, not part of a large planned development - in Falls Church in 2018. The trend shows no signs of slowing, and will continue to be part of the redevelopment of Tysons.
The advent of Amazon Prime may be one reason for the retailers’ newfound focus on walkability. In a dawning age of same-day delivery, driving to an enormous store - so convenient in the ‘80s - is a little less enticing. But even Prime trucks have a hard time competing with the convenience of living down the block from a Walmart. How will this trend continue? What is the future of retail? Only time will tell.
The biggest cautionary lesson Tysons can take from Columbia Heights regards transportation. The colossal investment in parking in the Target there has been wasted, as most people arrive by train or on foot.
Tysons, today, is just as Metro-accessible as Columbia Heights, and will soon likely be much more walkable than it is today. With an appropriate investment in mass transit, connecting Tysons to Merrifield and Falls Church and other growing nodes, in addition to proactive curbspace management for drop-off/pick-up, shoppers there will have a wealth of options, and massive parking garages will prove a waste of money.
Big-box stores were born in the suburbs in the ‘80s. In the ‘00s, they were reshaped by the needs of the reemerging urban economy. In the ‘10s - and in the ‘20s - that new shape is coming back home to the suburbs as places like Tysons transform into walkable urban neighborhoods.
Judith K. De Jong said her book “New Sub/Urbanisms”:
“Quietly, stealthily - there has been an ongoing “flattening” of the American metropolis, as many suburbs are becoming more similar to their central cities, and cities more similar to their suburbs… Interstitial parking, the residential densification of suburbia, inner-city big-box retail, and hyperprogrammed public spaces, among others. Each of these new sub/urbanisms reflects, to varying degrees, the reciprocating influences of the urban and the suburban. At the same time, these hybrid practices combine and re-configure conventional understandings of these familiar terms.”
Beyond the department store?
Not all big-box stores are general department stores like Target. Just a superblock or two away from the multi-story Tysons West Walmart you can find such strip-mall classics as Staples and Best Buy - and it remains to be seen how these more specialized stores will adapt to the urbanizing edge city.
Staples is pioneering a unique way of bringing its stores into the 21st century. Last month, in and around Boston, several Staples stores have recently begun offering coworking space. There don’t seem to be plans to expand this concept to Greater Washington at this time, but if the offering in Boston goes well, WeWork may soon have a new competitor.