Comparing Main Street Districts and Local Big Box Stores

Mapping the Commonwealth recently created a series of photos that overlay ten historic commercial districts (most of them Virginia Main Street districts) with the community’s local big box stores and parking lots.

Culpeper’s 2012 Great American Main Street Award winning Main Street district overlaid by a local big box store and parking lot. Photo credit: Mapping the Commonwealth.

These photos are interesting for several reasons. They help illustrate why the local historic commercial district is so financially valuable to a community. Last November, VMS posted a blog suggesting that rather than compare the value of different land uses within a community building-to-building (for example, a Walmart vs. a mixed-use building in the historic commercial district), it makes more sense to look at the per-acre value of different land uses. Due to the density of development in Virginia’s historic Main Street districts, a vibrant and thriving district with a variety of first floor commercial uses and fully-occupied upper stories is some of the most valuable real estate on a per-acre basis in any community. As you watch the photos overlay one another, think of the number of people living, working, visiting, shopping, dining and celebrating in the Main Street district versus the same acreage of the big box store and its parking lot.

One of the most common complaints heard in many Main Street districts is that there is not enough parking nearby. In most Main Street districts, parking problems are problems of perception and/or poor parking management rather than a lack of available pavement. The big box stores have figured out that shoppers are willing to walk when they are offered something they want. When walking from the parking lot through a big box store and back to their cars, shoppers may walk the equivalent of laps through the nearby downtown, spend their hard-earned dollars and not complain. If people are not shopping downtown, a lack of pavement for parking is probably not the problem.

Valley 4th of July parade through Harrisonburg's Main Street district.
Valley 4th of July parade through Harrisonburg’s Main Street district. Photo credit: Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.

Finally, it is almost painful to watch these historic commercial districts overlaid by big box stores. With a blink of an eye, all of the things that make Virginia’s historic commercial districts unique and treasured parts of their communities, the historic buildings, unique shops, amazing lofts, tasty restaurants, busy theaters, bustling offices, pocket parks, flowering baskets, farmers markets, celebration spaces and more, are replaced with a parking lot and big box store that looks like every other parking lot and big box store in America. Luckily, the photo overlays are for demonstration purposes only, and Virginia’s Main Street districts are open for business.