The Empty Box

After World War II, communities across the country embarked on a new form of city building that was based soley on distant separation of zoning (business here, homes there) and reliance on the automobile. This deviation of form broke from thousands of years of knowledge on how cities have grown, and thrived around the world. At a time when gas was under $1 a gallon, and commutes were under 20 minutes, this form was a welcome change and allowed for tapping into larger land parcels at cheaper prices and created the movement away from the inner city. This redesigned form placed the small-building with small entrepreneur at the sidelines and hastened the development of what we’ve all come to know as the “big box”.

So what’s the problem with the “big box” and why are so many people in Oak Cliff beginning to fight against it? Drive to any 20+ year old shopping center in the country and you’ll quickly see why…massive vacant store fronts that are unusable to any small business person and remain ghost towns that rapidly lower home values, create a mass exodus toward newer communities that are not vacant, and lower the perception of safety for entire neighborhoods. We’re pockmarked with these buildings throughout Oak Cliff including a boarded up Luby’s, and Safeway on Fort Worth Avenue. Within a 5 mile radius you’ll find shuttered Albertson’s, KMart’s, Mervyn’s and beyond that Circuit City’s, Expo Design Centers, Drug Emporiums, and more. The debate on the new Wal-Mart also highlights the reality of creating more empty boxes with the inevitable shuttering of the Minyard’s and the recently opened Aldi which sits on the same block. Worst of all, it’s too expensive to tear them down, so they remain boarded up and lining our neighborhoods.

At the base of the argument, proponents of the low-cost big box discuss the need for this space because of its potential to help “the poor”. The reality is, when the form is wrong, the poor suffer most. Noone can comfortably walk or bicycle with their child from their home to a big box outlet. When a poor person has to own an automobile to simply buy a gallon of milk, we’re left with perpetually enabling a cycle of poverty. The APTA recently put out a study noting that the average price of vehicle ownership per month in Dallas (that includes car price, gas, insurance, registration, parking, tolls, etc.) is $776. For someone who has little means, that’s up to 50% of their income. And gas prices aren’t going down anytime soon.

Sadly, the other fatality in the equation is the small business connected to the strip center which the big box supports. Once the anchor closes, a rapid hemorrhaging of the small stores attached to it follow.

So what form works? It’s simple…think small. Who do we want to enable in our community, the small business storefront or the giant box? Which one allows for a small entrepreneur to get a toe hold in business? Which one can be immediately reborn if the building closes? Which one is safe for children and the elderly to walk to? Which one creates pride in a community? Which one is the long term solution for helping the poor? Keep in mind, that 50% of residents in Dallas don’t own a car…they’re either too young, too old, too poor, or have disabilities. So which development is inclusive of all?

The small street lined with thin, connected buildings, and smaller storefronts are found in cities around the world. From Mexico City to Johannesburg, and from London to New York City. They’re the great streets that are filled with life, small business, outdoor markets, children walking, students bicycling, and elderly sitting outside. They’re sustainable, they’re active, and they promote small business.

Jefferson Boulevard. Small storefronts that can quickly and affordably be reused. Also, seniors can live above the shops and continue to stay in their communities by having all of their needs in walking distance.


In the end, Wal-Mart can still be a player in the neighborhood and provide a needed service to the area…it just has to get the form right. It’s being done in cities around the country now by many large businesses but it does require a bit more creativity at the outset. Three simple rules are required: 1 – Build to the sidewalk and face the street, 2 – create permeable surfaces (allow light in and out and people to window shop), 3- hide the parking from the street. That’s it…if this is done, the building can be reused and re-adapted over and over again.  The beauty is, we already have a template to follow: Jefferson Boulevard, and the Bishop Arts District. What hurts these two areas are that we’ve not created ample parking solutions that are hidden from the street.  Bishop has one lot, but as it grows, we’ll need to make accommodations for more…but the upside is that neighbors can walk and bike to these businesses with their families. These two places create a unique identity for our community and drive new business, innovation, and create great places that we can all live, work, and play in.


  1. katrina whaltey on May 18, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Nice one, Jason.

  2. rubbercow on May 18, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Jefferson has tremendous potential to be a diverse and friendly retail area. Such a long strip of small spaces that can be walked easily is really ideal for people of all socioeconomic descriptions.

  3. Meredith on May 18, 2011 at 11:09 am

    I understand and support many of the premises here, but find it odd that Wal-Mart was pointed out while Cox Farms was not. Based on both the Duncanville store and the foot print currently open for it, it seems as if the architecture is going to be traditional strip with front parking, just like Wal-Mart.

  4. jrbraddick on May 18, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Jefferson is already a diverse and friendly retail area, if not the type you want.
    It depends on what you mean by diverse and friendly, both of which are highly subjective in this case.

  5. robshearer on May 18, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Meredith – the plans for the Sylvan Thirty development as designed by noted urban architecture firm Lake Flato is not a traditional big box development. The developer is working hard to take into account good design and functionality in the project and I for one and optimistic that the finished product will be beneficial and contributing to the neighborhood.

  6. Cox is no Walmart on May 18, 2011 at 11:35 am

    The SYLVAN | THIRTY development is mixed use, the parking is mostly in a “courtyard” type of setting, and the buildings are being built to continue site lines (up to the street). Brent Jackson is working with his fellow investors to make it a walkable, desirable destination. And the Cox Market footprint is much smaller than a Walmart foot print.

  7. Greg on May 18, 2011 at 11:36 am

    I think this is largely the reason why people are moving back to the big cities. They are tired of driving long distances to get to anything, and gas is a huge factor. However, until cities respond with better infrastructure and schools, this trend will not be long lived. Businesses will continue to move to “big box” shopping centers because it brings them more customers. People still want a one-stop-shopping center.

  8. Amy on May 18, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Why does not wanting a Walmart mean we are anti-lower income people? Oak Cliff has no shortage of affordable grocers and retailers. From our local tienda on Davis @ Edgefield to the Family Dollar store to the Rio to the Fiesta to the Aldi to the Minyard to the Tom Thumb to the Walmart 2 exits down I-30, I think you can safely say we’re covered on inexpensive food and sundries.

    And if you want to hate the people who shop at stores like Urban Acres, keep in mind that these people are supporting small business- exactly what Sam Walton started out being. Begrudge them their $6 milk, grassfed meats, and fancy cheeses all you want, but the beauty is that we have options.

    If anything, Walmart, Family Dollar, and other big box stores squelch the dreams of the small businessman. Support the little guy!

    I agree with what Scott Griggs said at the Hitt Auditorium event back in March- let’s build something we’ll be proud of in 50 years. I don’t think the Walmart business model is it.

  9. rubbercow on May 18, 2011 at 11:45 am

    @jrbraddick –

    I did not have anything sinister in mind with my comment; I merely commented on the natural potential of the Jefferson corridor. Of course, everything is subjective to everyone and at all times.

  10. Bill on May 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    No business, small or large, plans their business model for the poor. Let’s face it, the poor don’t have the type of disposible income that will support today’s businesses. Few city or business leaders care what the poor need or want. If they did, Dallas and cities like Arlington would make it a priority. Walmart is here to stay, like them or not. I don’t see them going back to small buildings to suit Oak Cliff. I do support your efforts to stop them from building a WM on every corner. That trend has got to stop.

  11. Meredith on May 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    @Rob: Thanks for the response. I had not done my research and was only aware of the existing Cox store’s look and feel.

  12. Jason Roberts on May 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    You bring up a good point. What our focus should be on is creating greater equitability in communities. This can be done through infrastructure and form. Bogota, Colombia is a case in point where a great “bicycle highway” was laid directly into one of their slums. This single roadway allowed the poor to get to and from work without the expense of car ownership, and created a series of small businesses that directly stemmed from the bike roadway:

    As someone who has been poor, I can say firsthand that poverty for me simply meant having a lack of choices. The dilemma is that cheap housing exists in areas where no businesses are…this requires vehicle ownership, or you can take public transit, but you now have lost time. This loss of time for us meant we were no longer able to attend the afterschool meetings, help with homework, or get involved with PTA’s. That lack of involvement with the local school had (and still has) direct implications on our children and those surrounding us. The form and infrastructure is all connected…and it can be made in such a way that builds more businesses, allows for single vehicle ownership, and puts more money back into the local economy while creating greater equitability.

  13. Scogin Mayo on May 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Good article with great aspirations which I believe to be very positive.

    The problem, if not the hypocrisy, with what you aspire to is that you are promoting the ideals of a small, self sustaining community yet you continue to market the areas to the city at large. Most of the prosperity that the areas you refer to has been largely made possible by people who drive their cars from other parts of the city. Were it not for those commuters, the areas would still be floundering because the immediate local community simply is not there to support the businesses on that level. Without the infrastructure of a truly viable mass-transit system and a significant majority of people willing to use it, or the displacement of largely poor segments of the population in order to build more parking structures (there’s no place to hide) and wider roadways, the ideal of a prosperous “self sustaining local community” is nothing more than a marketing slogan.

    If the ideal of a self sustaining local community, free of the “big box” mentality, is what you aspire for, then that is exactly what it needs to be and you need to stop marketing it to the broader city at large. You simply can’t have it both ways under the current conditions. It requires a major shift in the attitudes towards how we conduct business and who we are marketing our businesses to. It also requires having businesses that are willing to lower their expectations for profitability. You cannot expect to achieve the goal of a self sustaining local community, free of the big box mentality, congestion and accompanying pollution that comes with it if the majority of businesses depend on customers from another part of the city for their livelihood. It’s an oxymoron.

  14. Oak Cliff Townie on May 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    In Agreement with you about the Wal*Mart .And what they tend to do.
    The one thing worse than a Wal*Mart. (And I do shop there) is the almost radioactive like 1/2 life of the old Mal*mart building that is left behind to decay. When a new Wal*mart is built close by.

    What Safeway On FT Worth Ave ? Are you talking about the old Post Office Equipment Repair place by the Mirmar motel ? ?
    And the Photos ? Do they represent Oak Cliff or Other Towns ?

  15. Frank Turrentine on May 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    i’d feel better about the choice of local, organic produce if it were priced such that the folks who currently can only afford the GMO foods at Fiesta and the like had the option of enjoying them as well. Healthy, chemical-free food should be cheaper than the alternative, really. There’s no really good reason that it’s not, except that it’s something of a boutique item currently.

    The potential for Jefferson Blvd seems to have been long ago realized. There is a ton of pedestrian traffic and business that goes along that street.

  16. Frank Turrentine on May 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    That’s not a knock on UA, btw. More an observation of our collective mentality. I don’t know that the folks who buy the processed foods are interested in making an informed choice, but perhaps that is because they’re freedom of speech and choice has been long deformed by the context in which they live. HOwever, were the prices such their choices would be more easily informed.

  17. Jason Roberts on May 18, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    @Frank Yes, Jefferson Boulevard is already successful…which is why I called it the model to follow. With that being said, business owners in the area will tell you they need more parking. I know because I headed up the Texas Theatre for a year and was always having to get creative with getting people in and out of the area.

    @Scogin Again, I think Jefferson is pulling in plenty of people from the surrounding area. We should be able to accommodate some additional parking by stacking and charging to park (instituting a charge would facilitate greater use of walking/biking/public-transit)..Centre street (b/w Zang and Bishop) is one giant vacant lot used by Bank of Texas only. That lot, combined with allowing use of other public buidlings (library/postoffice) on off hours would go far to helping the businesses that are concerned about parking. Though, I agree, greater use of public transit/walking/biking are going to be needed as well. We also have to address realities in overhead…to keep it low, we need more small storefronts, and have to remove the existing zoning that disallows people the ability to live in or above their shops.

    @Townie It’s the giant blue building…it was a Safeway…it’s no longer the post office repair facility. It’s become a vacant lot they park cars in. Photos are towns across the US that are dealing with the exact same problem, though I could drive one mile from my house and take the exact same shots. If you drive down Hampton, going South you’ll pass 3 between Twelfth and 67. I just visited Duncanville with city officials and was shown 4 empty shopping strips…all of which are unable to be reused by anything other than another big box. All of these communities are struggling with what to do and sadly, no small business has a chance because the scale is far too large to allow for them to take hold.

  18. Scogin Mayo on May 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm


    Sincere thanks for the article, the reply, the openness to debate and the incessant drive to make our neighborhood a better place to live and work.

  19. raymond crawford on May 18, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    I was raised on shopping on Jefferson and Wynnewood so I have a special place in my heart about both venues. Toured behind the scenes at the Texas today-too cool, too cool, too cool. I like the idea of focusing on Jefferson and doing more to make it more user friendly for everyone in Dallas.

  20. Oak Cliff Townie on May 18, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    It almost seems like Good old days Syndrome but Oak Cliff was very self contained part of Dallas.

  21. Edgar on May 18, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    If Jefferson can provide the kind of equitable supply you envision, I’m all for it. Yet there’s a massive distinction between working with infrastructure that’s already in place along Jefferson and re-zoning Fort Worth Ave. to create another street like Jefferson or David out of the dust.

    People who shop at Hampton and FWA already have cars – most are in families that have two cars. Their livelihoods often depend on the mobility those cars provide. The equation doesn’t balance if they are stuck with two car payments and higher prices. In that sense, I would argue that it’s not entirely equitable to rip the rug out from under them by forcing them to either eat the cost of higher goods or drive further and further afield to get cheaper goods.

    So, my question is this: How do we expand the “think small” vision to new areas without imposing extra (oftentimes unbearable) burdens on working-class people? Can the long-term public good be promoted without exacerbating the medium-term exigencies of daily life?

  22. Jason Roberts on May 18, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Good question, Edgar.

    The price shouldn’t increase due to the form. Remember that Jerry’s on Jefferson Boulevard is a good example of a grocery store that is built with correct form (although, it doesn’t address the front of the street, it could easily be re-engineered if Jerry’s closed it’s doors). FWA is 6-lanes and could easily drop to 4 with little effect on traffic. Another thing to note is traffic occurs due to intersections and can be adjusted by re-timing of lights-road size has little effect and can actually create more traffic (Check out Tom Vanderbuilts book Traffic for more on this topic). If you use bike lanes in the 2 lanes that you’ve dropped, you’ve just increased options for mobility for families in the area and reduced the need for 2 cars. You’ve also shortened the distances required for pedestrians to cross which creates a more walkable street. Lastly, you’ve reduced the speed naturally (the wider the street the faster the traffic) which reduces fatalities and allows for small businesses to be seen due to greater visibility.

    Again, Jefferson is filled with examples of affordable priced options for working class families (Levines, Famsa, Dollar stores), and it has the correct form. It has the added advantage that if you live within a half mile of the area, you can have all of your needs accounted for and have a place that your children can safely walk and bicycle on. I’m advocating for creating more of these “walkable centers” throughout the city so people will not have to rely as heavily on a car, which creates a direct increase in their standard of living and quality of life.

    I’d even take it a step further and say that we should create public plazas throughout neighborhoods to allow for tent markets to take place so that working class families can try out business ideas on weekends to see if they can start generating more income streams that could lead to real brick-and-mortar businesses. The next natural step is having a small store front to evolve up to (this is not available in a shuttered big box scenario). This small marketplace alone would also increase the neighborhoods quality of life by giving families a place to intermingle, connect, and enjoy all while lowering their necessity to have to drive to a big box for everyday items.

    One major thing to take into consideration as well is that we are tied to energy prices in everything from commuting to groceries (high gas prices are translated from a retailer to a consumer). Having an option to be a one-car family dramatically increases revenue, and promotes buying local (ie. if it takes me more than 20 minutes to bike there, I’m not buying it).

    Anecdotally, a few days back my son and I spent a day bicycling to El Jordan for $1.25 breakfast tacos, we then headed over to the Texas Theatre to watch an old movie. After that we rode to Jerry’s to buy vegetables to make salsa at home, and ducked in at Kidd Springs for a minute so he could show me some crawdads…after that we biked back home. We spent very little, and were able to safely/comfortably bike (or exercise without trying), and take in movies, food, parks, and groceries all within a mile radius. None of that would have been possible if we lived at FWA and Hampton (or any 6-lane arterial)…not having that option is simply not fair to kids.

    This isn’t an Oak Cliff specific issue…the form is bad in Plano, in Carrollton, in Euless, et cetera. It necessitates the need for expensive car payments, perpetuates sedentary lifestyles (leading to the rash of childhood obesities we now face), and hurts small business opportunities.

  23. Andrew on May 18, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    @Frank @Jbraddick Diversity is one of the main factors of a successful main street. It means you can park your car once, ride transit, walk or bike and get to many of your needs in a small geographic area. Sounds like a walmart? Walmart has food, guns, lawnmowers, nails, basketballs, drugs, beer, etc… A main street should have the same to be successful, well maybe not the guns and beer in the same shop!

    When a place gets too much of one thing it is no longer healthy. Greenville has too many bars, thus it is sick and the ills are passed onto neighbors in the form of cars parked in yards and puke on the sidewalks. Jefferson has too many check cashing, payday loans, insurance shops and ambulance chasers. Count how many next time you are walking on Jefferson. This is not characteristic of a healthy place and certainly does not represent the culture of the area. We have the power to drive out these leaches, just need the will.

  24. John Politis on May 19, 2011 at 8:52 am

    First a question, Where is the boarded up Safeway? And an answer, to bike to the corner of Fort Worth and Hampton, take Colorado. It is a beautiful ride.

    Every article I have read talks about a WalMart Neighborhood Market, not a WalMart or Super WalMart, being targeted for the urban blight that is now at Colorado and Fort Worth. WalMart Neighborhood Market is a grocery store, not a big box store.

    Fort Worth Avenue is just that, an Avenue. To me it is just what it should be, a place to put stores like a WalMart Neighborhood Market. I like the idea of a WalMart Neighborhood Market or other grocery store on that lot. It is well suited for that. We have Davis and Bishop Arts, we have Jefferson Blvd, we also need an Avenue.

    Quite frankly ,the lot in question is a blight to the area. When the Colorado Place Apartments were torn down they took with them the sidewalks creating a safety danger. Something needs to be one with that in the interim before someone is killed.

    Drive Ft Worth Avenue at rush hour. It would be greatly affected by a reduction in lanes, especially on those days when it is an alternate route to a congested I-30.

    I see diversity in zoning and building as being able to meet the needs of a diverse neighborhood.

  25. vrangel on May 19, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I agree Jason, Bad form and function is all over the place like you stated about the “Big Box” symptom. I do have hope and I do see developers and communities heading in a more centric and positive type of communities. The more people point out and draw comparisons like you did in this discussion helps us with ” Ah Ha” moments for sure. Great discussion. Keep up the great work.

  26. admin on May 19, 2011 at 12:23 pm


    The boarded up Safeway is the giant Blue and White monolith across the street from the Wendy’s. You can’t miss it.

    McKinney Avenue has similar traffic counts (12-15K cars per day) and is also an avenue and has completely different form and the same traffic counts. They’ve even thrown in a trolley and wide sidewalks.

    Greenville is an avenue and between Ross and Mockingbird it’s carrying 14K cars a day with 4 lanes. Far safer for people and children.

    Main Street downtown is two lanes and carries cars, busses, delivery trucks, pedestrians and more who get in and out of the area fine every day. The wider the street, the faster that cars will travel making the area dangerous…that’s a known. This also lowers the perception of safety of the neighborhood. You already have I-30 that acts as your fast route in and out of town. Also, you never want to build a road for you peak capacity only…it’s a major misallocation of resources that results in extremely high maintenance costs. Dropping a lane on either side would immediately result in millions saved which directly impact the all of our property taxes.

    I can show you streets in Chicago that have ten times the density, and are half the size and carry traffic without issue as well.

    Lastly, try taking an 8 year old on a bicycle from the Wendy’s over to the Dairy Queen, and then over to the Walgreen’s in front of the Home Depot.

    Other cities made the exact same assumption you have “that traffic would shutdown, and business would die”…in every case I’ve studied and implemented, the opposite has occurred:

  27. Jason Roberts on May 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    I understand that people want to drive fast, but the reality is that we have a community filled with children surrounding this road that need a safe environment to grow up in. Just last week two children were hit on Singleton and Vilbig by a truck (less than a mile from FWA and Hampton):

    That’s incredulous, and as a society…we cannot continue to ignore the 30,000 fatalities a year from vehicles. It’s the number one killer of people aged 1-34 and the equivalent of three 9-11’s a month. All of us know and have had friends/family members who have died in a car. We can’t keep pretending it’s just a cost of doing business.

  28. Ethan Wilson on May 19, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I went to go visit my cousin in Wichita Falls, and the old Circuit City Building was torn down and Aldi turned most of it into Greenspace and put one of their tiny stores in it’s spot, and it looks much better than that poorly placed store. (Though I may be bitter I used to work there 😀 )

  29. Edgar on May 21, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Jason. I really don’t have a problem with redesigning the form of the streets; my main concern is that redesigning the other aspects of the form – building to the sidewalks, etc. – could affect price. I guess I’m wondering how immediate the legal effect of zoning changes (such as imposing maximum setbacks) would be. To the extent that zoning changes push out existing businesses to make room for redevelopment, I view that as a problem. Developers are generally more interested in building spaces for which they can charge high rents. To make rent payments in that environment, retailers would end up offering products and services that require margins.

    So, I think the key for me is to provide some assurance that the pace of redevelopment will proceed organically, and not too rapidly, within the context of new zoning. There has to be substantial protection for existing businesses (and perhaps even to the landlords leasing to existing businesses) that zoning changes will not isolate or impair their businesses.

  30. JF on May 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    The main reason that a pedestrian-friendly form would cost more is that you’d have to hire architects to actually design the space. National chains don’t make their buildings look the same just so that you’ll recognize them from city to city, although that is certainly one reason. They make them the same because it’s cheaper to have a standard store format, tweaked ever so slightly, and just put it everywhere, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. The entire point of form-based buildings is that they conform to the plot of land in question. It’s like trying to squeeze a square object through a round hole, and ultimately just trimming enough off the sides to squeeze it through, rather than just realizing from the beginning that you’ve got to design something in the shape of a circle.