Shining the Light on Greyfields: A Wal-Mart Case Study on Preventing Abandonment of Big Box Stores through Land Use Regulations

By Sochar, Betsy H. | Albany Law Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Shining the Light on Greyfields: A Wal-Mart Case Study on Preventing Abandonment of Big Box Stores through Land Use Regulations


Sochar, Betsy H., Albany Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Shopping trends in the United States have changed dramatically over the last few decades with the introduction of the large-scale discount retailer. Wal-Mart is the forerunner in the retail market and dominates competition through the use of its big box stores. (1) Started by Sam Walton in 1962, (2) there are now over 3,443 WalMart stores in the United States and another 2,757 international locations. (3) These "big boxes" consist of at least 100,000 and up to 235,000 square feet of retail space or more, depending on whether a grocery store is integrated into the building. (4) Wal-Mart chooses to build its stores as large as possible, allowing goods to be purchased from suppliers in bulk; the larger the stores, the greater the savings. (5) Wal-Mart then passes on the savings to its consumers, resulting in its mass popularity among the public and nationwide competition because smaller stores do not have the capacity to purchase in bulk to the same extent that Wal-Mart can. (6) In addition, consumers love the low prices that Wal-Mart provides, which are about eight to twenty percent below other retailers. (7)

Despite all the criticism the company endures due to its health insurance policy, (8) low wages, (9) and environmental wastefulness, (10) Wal-Mart can bring a number of benefits to a community. Wal-Mart brings jobs and sales tax revenue along with low prices, including a recently-unveiled low-cost pharmaceutical program. (11) In addition, the company announced a major change in environmental policy through the construction of experimental eco-friendly stores (12) and a goal to conserve energy through the sale of fluorescent light bulbs. (13) The success of Wal-Mart's large stores encourages the company to build more stores, each bigger and better than the last one. Per the Wal-Mart Realty website, "Wal-Mart Stores and Sam's Clubs are often so successful that they outgrow their buildings and relocate to better serve our customers." (14) While the growth of the company is great for Wal-Mart, the costs to the public are plainly visible.

As Wal-Mart continues to be profitable, the company wants the stores to be as large as possible. It is common practice for the company to pick up and abandon one store and build in another location down the road that is bigger. For instance, in Phenix City, Alabama, the company built a Super Wal-Mart while abandoning a traditional store just down the road, which remained empty for over six years. (15) Another example is in La Junta, Colorado, where an empty Wal-Mart sits only a quarter mile from a new store. (16) The abundance of big boxes created over the last two decades has caused vacant retail space to exceed the retail market. (17) As a result, abandoned Wal-Mart stores sit empty, creating large concrete and asphalt eyesores in communities. These giant empty retail stores have become prevalent enough to earn the name "greyfields."

Greyfields can be defined as "old, obsolete and abandoned retail and commercial sites [with] thousands of square feet of retail space surrounded by seas of gray pavement." (18) These abandoned buildings tend to sit vacant for years and are one of the most visible indicators of urban sprawl. (19) The basic configuration of the big box, with thousands upon thousands of square feet, makes it difficult to find a new use for the building; the number of businesses that can use so much floor space is limited, (20) plus the lack of windows and interior walls deter potential buyers. (21) While communities around the country have found creative ways to reuse empty big boxes, such as for elementary schools, churches, and call centers, (22) Wal-Mart should be held accountable for the abandoned store that it leaves unoccupied.

Though many people would like to see Wal-Mart prevented from abandoning smaller stores in order to operate its excessively large stores in their communities, the reality is that the company is not likely to change its company development philosophy. …

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