SPEAKING OUT: “BIG BOX” PHOBIAMid-City has been in the news lately because of a proposal by a developer to build a retail complex. The area would cover roughly the space between the abandoned former Mercy Hospital on N. Jefferson Davis Parkway and then parallels railroad tracks which are lined by many abandoned warehouses west toward N. Carrollton Avenue. It is an area that’s for the most part economically dead except for a busy Sav-A-Center and a Home Depot on N. Carrollton Avenue.

At its best, the proposal could have great potential for not only the neighborhood but the entire city. Certain terms, however, such as “big box” and “suburban style shopping center” and even – you might want to cover your eyes – “Wal-Mart” have become urban buzzwords for evil. The Mid-City development plan is in danger of the loss of rational examination because of the force of rhetoric. Some examples:

Big Boxes. We are supposed to hate big box stores. The term refers to places such as Home Depot, Circuit City and Lowe’s, which are filled with items that you gather off the shelves and then carry home. There is already a small big box on N. Carrollton Avenue – a Home Depot built in the site of a former Winn-Dixie. Before Katrina there was a Harry’s Ace Hardware on the other side of Carrollton but it never re-opened. Home Depot offers more choices, is open longer hours and generally has better prices than most hardware stores. Yet those who live in the city are not supposed to want that in their neighborhood. Instead, they’re apparently supposed to prefer to drive to Veterans  Boulevard or to Elmwood where their tax money goes to Jefferson Parish rather than Orleans. Sorry – we like stores like Home Depot and wish there were others like it – not on Canal Street – but certainly in place of empty warehouses.

“Big Box” is one of those emotive phrases contrived to make a successful business concept seem sterile. In another age, department stores such as Maison Blanche, Krauss, Sears and D.H. Holmes also might have been called big boxes, because they gathered so many different items under one roof. Someone surely lamented that the newfangled department stores were undermining the beloved Mom and Pop shops. But department stores, like large-scale home supply stores, are simply a reflection of the marketplace. If you believe in capitalism, then you have to believe that the market has a way of creating a demand. Give us the right to be able to buy a caulking gun in our own neighborhoods after 9 p.m., even if it’s from a “big box.”

Suburban Shopping Centers. One critic of the proposal feared what she called “suburban style shopping centers” in the neighborhood. Clustered shopping areas were not a suburban invention – they originated in cities. That’s what downtown shopping was all about. What the suburbs did was adapt the shopping cluster to the age of the automobile, provide convenient parking and then create an air-conditioned mall. To an extent, cities have been borrowing from the suburbs for years. Chicago was one of the first with Water Tower Place; New Orleans has it with Canal Place. People’s desire to park conveniently while shopping and to feel comfortable is not going to go away. The suburbs improved on what the cities created – there is no disgrace for the cities to  have “urban” style shopping malls.

Mom and Pop. As evil as big boxes sound there can be nothing more wholesome than Mom and Pop. We aren’t supposed to want big developments because they ruin Moms’ and Pops’ businesses. The problem is that Mom and Pop are not open for long hours, their inventory is less, they are more expensive and they generally pay their employees less. Most of all – they barely exist. There are just not that many Moms and Pops around.

There is a place, however, for small specialty shops – especially those that concentrate in areas where the big guys cannot be competitive. Antique dealers, boutiques, galleries and day spas have a niche of their own, plus they offer personalized service. Look at Magazine Street, where the specialty stores are thriving even though there’s a Wal-Mart nearby.

Much remains to be discussed about the Mid-City  plan, including issues of design (even big boxes can have a nice facade) traffic flow and aesthetics. (Plans should include ample green space and should incorporate easy access from the nearby streetcar line.) What worries us is the rhetoric, as well as those who use it like a club and who have become more powerful than they should be.

Our bias is in favor of cities. They need to regain their status as vital places for retail and commerce. We who care about towns should not be so arrogant as to reject what we can learn from the suburbs nor so irresponsible as to prevent cities from being competitive with surrounding areas.

As we try to build a better New Orleans we might find some answers in a big box – if only we bother to look objectively.