Op-Ed: Saying No to Big Box in SPURA

Posted on: March 16th, 2012 at 11:25 am by

The following op-ed was written by Boogie reader David Bergman, an architect who has lived in the Lower East Side for just shy of 30 years. He also teaches ecodesign at Parsons and his book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, will be released next month.

It’s only taken, oh, a few generations. The long-vacant blocks around Delancey and Essex Streets, the sites collectively known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), may finally re-merge into the fabric of the Lower East Side. And for the most part that’s a good thing. The decades-old parking lots have done nothing to improve the neighborhood, and the no-mans-land has felt like a hole in the heart of the Lower East Side.

But the current plans for the area, as outlined in the Lo-Down this week, are far from ideal. Putting aside the controversies over the potential demise or relocation of the Essex Street Market and the duration of affordable housing rates, the apparent determination that a big box retailer (or two or three?) is necessary represents an outdated and inappropriate approach to urban development in general and to the LES in particular.

The defining characteristics of the LES include its (until recently) low-rise buildings which lend it more of a neighborhood feel, an atmosphere that is enhanced by the presence of primarily locally-owned stores. Much of the flavor of our neighborhood derives from the community created when we know local storeowners and staff. Just think of the many friends and characters we encounter in a simple outing for a few provisions.

The Upper West Side used to be more like that, but now much of it seems to be a succession of big box and chain stores. Fortunately for us, the nature of the building stock down here means that storefronts are relatively small, resisting anything larger than the occasional Duane Reade. (I try to ignore the recent onslaught of Starbucks and Subways. Why go there when we have any number of great local shops? And don’t get me started on Domino’s. Keep those in towns that don’t know how to make real pizza.)

At the last Community Board 3 Land Use subcommittee meeting, NYC Economic Development senior VP  David Quart asserted that a project of this size must have an “anchor tenant.”  The term anchor store or anchor tenant comes from the world of shopping malls, and the theory there was that a large name-brand store would serve as the draw attracting shoppers to the mall and to the other smaller stores. But that approach doesn’t apply in an urban situation where the customers (that’d be us) are already there and therefore don’t have to make the decision to travel a longer distance. (Furthermore, the shopping mall with anchor tenant model isn’t working so well these days even in the suburbs where it was first applied.)

The wonderful thing about an urban street is the activity. That’s been understood and accepted since the days of Jane Jacobs by all, it seems, except developers. There’s a vibrancy in seeing the unexpected or bumping into your neighbors. But the level of street life outside a long row of Bed, Bath & Beyond or Home Depot windows is nothing like what occurs where you have a different storefront entrance every 20 feet or so, where the owner hangs out and knows what’s going on in the neighborhood. The inside is different, too; the atmosphere in the tiny local pharmacy nearby– where they know us and come out from behind the register to greet our dog — doesn’t compare to the antiseptic and Muzak’ed Rite Aid a few blocks away.

What we fear

Some will say that discount retailers provide a service: more (generic!) goods at lower prices. But that’s often an illusion, particularly when the big box forces locally owned stores out of business, causing the neighborhood to lose not just flavor but jobs and income as well. Never mind what happens when the discount chain decides that the store isn’t making quite enough profit and closes it, leaving a desolate stretch of unoccupied street, now with no shopping alternatives.

I’m by no means against change or progress. And I’m totally in favor of mending the ugly gap in the LES, but the solution is not in bringing in discredited formulas from elsewhere. There’s a reason we love living here; let’s build upon  that.

[Wal-Mart photo via Hyper Literature]

Recent Stories

Scenes from the 9th Annual Harold Hunter Day Skate Jam [PHOTOS]

Hundreds rolled down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass Sunday afternoon to skate for the great. It was the ninth annual Harold Hunter Day at Coleman Skatepark, an all-ages skate jam paying tribute to the fallen soldier. As always, the event was sponsored by the Harold Hunter Foundation alongside skatewear brand DC. Harold Hunter Day was […]

Photo: Lori Greenberg
You Have Until Saturday to Relive ‘The Downtown Decade’

Most Boogie readers know that we are more than a bit obsessed with the 70s – 80s art and music scene of downtown New York City. Despite the city being in utter chaos, this pivotal time period managed to inspire a cross-pollination of art, photography, film, performance, writing and music. It never ceases to fascinate […]

Ello Asty figurine
Named After Beastie Boys Album, Star Wars Alien ‘Ello Asty’ is Born to Ill

The original Star Wars trilogy remains a personal obsession. Despite the creative meddlings of George Lucas, who butchered the legacy with revisionist history and a second trilogy of insufferable prequels. We devoured much of the literature on the fantasy world, including the Timothy Zahn Thrawn series from the early nineties. And one of the things […]

New Bodega Opens in Joon Cleaners Space on East Broadway

​The former Joon Cleaners at 219 East Broadway finally has a replacement, three years after the death of its owner. Those evergreen leasing signs above the storefront were deposed weeks ago, as a new bodega is set to open here. Behind that new security gate system, ownership had gradually prepared the space; shelving is now […]

Carolina Sarria Boutique Opening at 149 Ludlow Street

Blessed Peacemakers relinquished control of 149 Ludlow Street in the summer of 2014. It was a tough run for the boutique, considering its entire two-years of existence were spent behind a business-killing shield of plywood and scaffolding. Seriously, construction on the block had a sidewalk bridge here for some four years. Until a couple months […]

  • David

    No WalMart! 

  • http://twitter.com/elSpectre Neil Baptista

    There’s plenty of hardware stores and building supply stores around, so we don’t need a Home Depot.  Essex market covers groceries.  Bed, Bath and Beyond crappy goods are definitely not welcome.  
    Big box stores over there would also present a traffic nightmare that couldn’t even be described.  

    Maybe they could do something interesting like make it a park for the billions of families on the LES.

    And yes David, definitely NO Walmart.


  • Guest

    So, Delancey Street is one of the most dangerous streets in the City for walking people where cars race on and off the bridge, but they want to build a magnet for pedestrian shoppers there?! How is that not premeditated murder of future residents and visitors? I understand that density is good for government coffers, but isn’t there a limit to how safely commercial and residential can be crushed together? Maybe there’s something I just don’t understand about City Planning.