Thursday, December 07, 2006

Chain stores downtown: another perspective

In the brouhaha over "formula businesses" in downtown Portland, an article in the latest issue of The Atlantic brings some important arguments to the debate.

Unfortunately, the links above don't quote the entire article, but the Houston Strategies blog (highly recommended reading, whether or not you live in Texas) quotes extensively from the article, and adds some Space City perspective.

Particularly applicable to the debate in Portland are these arguments: that chains "increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place," and that "Chains let people in a city of 250,000 enjoy retail amenities once available only in a huge metropolitan center."

There are times when author Virginia Postrel seems to be writing specifically about Portland: "Contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites, most cities don’t exist primarily to please tourists." Zing!

And there are some choice quotes from planning consultant Robert Gibbs, who works with cities to help revive moribund downtown areas:
To his frustration, he finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local activists who oppose chains “want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell—the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even.” You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, he says, and they’ll love the store. So downtown stores stay empty, or sell low-value tourist items like candles and kites, while the chains open on the edge of town. In the name of urbanism, officials and activists in cities like Ann Arbor and Fort Collins, Colorado, are driving business to the suburbs. “If people like shopping at the Banana Republic or the Gap, if that’s your market—or Payless Shoes—why not?” says an exasperated Gibbs. “Why not sell the goods and services people want?”

Candles and kites? She's got to be writing about Portland. Or maybe she's talking about any one of thousands of quaint tourist trap communities. It's hard to tell - kind of like driving through a strip of chain stores.

Related post: Buy Local, While You Still Can (November 20)

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