Originally created 12/18/00

'Big-box' blight



SNELLVILLE, Ga. -- At the Wisteria Village shopping center, grocery carts from a defunct Winn-Dixie supermarket sit idle near the front doors and a pink neon seafood sign still glows in the back.

Barely a mile away, a former Target department store looms over an empty, wizened section of the Fountain Square center. Smaller shops overlooking acres of deserted parking lot feature "for lease" signs.

The death of shopping in a decrepit suburb? Hardly.

These and scores of other abandoned "big-box" stores across metro Atlanta often tell a tale of prosperity -- the move of merchants lured to new locations with more people, more parking and more affluence.

But when big-box retailers relocate or go out of business, thousands of square feet of unused space remain.

Cities, which often lose sales tax revenue with the departures, complain that the empty big boxes become eyesores that breed crime and vandalism and depress foot traffic and property values.

Adding to their frustration, some retailers with long-term leases continue paying rent after they move to keep competitors from encroaching.

"It becomes kind of a blight on the community," said Brett Harrell, who was elected Snellville's mayor last year on a "smart-growth" platform. "It paints a picture of a non-vibrant, non-active community. Over time, you see evidence of increased vandalism, broken glass and so forth."

In other cases, older shopping centers without large anchor tenants are subdivided and attract small businesses typically deemed less attractive -- thrift stores, hobby shops, restaurants, call centers, exercise studios.

Property managers and developers counter that a free-enterprise society must at times be patient while the market decides the spaces' best use, even if a retailer pays the rent to lock up a "dark space."

"At some point either Wal-Mart will get tired of paying the rent ... or else the marketplace will determine that there is another usage for the space that was previously closed," said Marty Wolf, director of property services for Flanders Properties, which develops and manages shopping centers.

But some cities aren't waiting patiently.

Peachtree City, an upscale planned community south of Atlanta, recently passed an ordinance that limits big-box stores to 32,000 square feet and prohibits any three tenants from occupying more than 80,000 square feet.

The law also bars retailers from leaving a location and continuing to pay rent to keep it empty.

"They not only keep them vacant but they keep them looking Third World," said Jim Williams, director of development in Peachtree City, where Home Depot and Wal-Mart plan new stores next year.

Some developers question whether the law will pass legal scrutiny, but city leaders say they wrote the ordinance narrowly to address a public-interest issue.

The city of 34,000 aims to avoid the sort of vacant space that has befallen Fayetteville, about 10 miles east, Williams said. "I'm not trying to make them look bad, but they have some really wonderful examples of carnage."

One is the Banks Crossing shopping center, which sports a Kmart that closed last month and a Belk's clothing store that packed up last year.

When big-box retailers with long-term leases move -- which some developers say is happening more frequently as customers flock to newer stores -- smaller merchants struggle without the draw of an anchor.

Judy Pfister, who owns Package Express, a small shipping shop next to the former Kmart at Banks Crossing, said foot traffic has plummeted as retailers moved to a new larger center less than a mile away.

"There's no way we can break the lease so we're kind of stuck," Pfister said.

Kmart is usually among the last retailers to leave a withering center and "the traffic leaves before any of the stores close," said Mary Lorencz, a spokeswoman for the Troy, Mich.-based company. Kmart, with 2,106 stores, closed 72 this year. About 80 percent of those were in leased space, she said.

"The people go elsewhere and it may not be the best retail site anymore," Lorencz said.

In Snellville, 30 miles east of Atlanta, leaders aren't yet ready to pass a law as dramatic as Peachtree City's, but they have adopted new measures such as lighting and sign requirements in a bid to curtail retail sprawl.

Still, three big-box stores sit empty and a former Target has been divided for a teen social center and an athletic club. The city hopes to lure a church into the 50,000 square feet that's still vacant, five years after Target moved.

"I was looking for another retailer but it was hard to find so we decided to divide it," said Freda Mokberi of Atlanta, who bought the center when Target left. "Having smaller spaces, it is easier to find a customer for that."

One of the biggest customers for such "dispositioned space," in industry parlance, is Consolidated Stores, a closeout retailer based in Columbus, Ohio, that operates more than 2,600 stores under such names as Big Lots, Odd Lots, MacFrugal's and Pic 'N' Save.

"We've looked at quite a few (former) Wal-Marts," said Kevin Day, Consolidated's vice president of market research. "There always seems to be a surplus for us."

On the Net:

City of Snellville, http://www.snellville.org

International Council of Shopping Centers, http://www.icsc.org

Consolidated Stores, http://www.cnstore.com