Many national retailers are legitimate victims of NIMBY and CAVE clans, groups and individuals who simply obstruct the development process to resist competition and change. But it is also true that in many towns the big-box retail industry has earned its lowly reputation due to tactics not unlike the early time-share salesmen of the 1970s and 1980s in the hotel industry: fast-talking, big on promises and short on execution. Charming Main Streets have been obliterated, replaced with blocks of faceless box warehouse stores devoid of human scale, landscaping or visual relief. The irony is that most citizens are quite comfortable with change and economic progress, and all want low-priced goods. But they ask, “Does it have to look so stark and brutal?”
With this growing disenchantment and resistance, smart retailers are taking the proactive approach to solving this dilemma. They are resolving to put away the take-it-or-leave-it attitude and adopting a dramatically different approach to community relations, which invites communication and involvement in the design process and results in architecture with a distinctly “local” flavor.
Hope can also be found in the time-share example. Significant strategic moves, such as a major image restructuring (including a new label, vacation ownership) and the entry of major reputable hotel players such as Marriott and Hilton, have revolutionized the near-defunct industry and established legitimacy in the eyes of the discerning public.
As an architect practicing in Honolulu for nearly 15 years, I have had the opportunity to work with many national retailers that have made their initial entry to the unique Honolulu marketplace, where capturing the “local flavor and style” is arguably a most elusive and challenging task. This is due to many factors, including the uncommonly broad cultural diversity of our residents and the lack of a clear regional architectural style that can be appropriately adapted to the enormous footprints of a value retail store. For these reasons, Honolulu serves as a good, independent laboratory of sorts to explore this question of local adaptation.
An excellent example of this corporate retail transformation is a recently successful rezoning effort in the capital city. Under the skillful direction of Project Development Manager Tom Smith, Best Buy Stores adeptly overcame a hostile administration's late efforts to reject its long-standing rezoning application due to the design team's ability to respond favorably to the local neighborhood's concerns and requests. In fact, it was perhaps THE leading component of the City Council's decision to unanimously override the Mayor's veto.
From the beginning, the process was unconventional. Smith brought his local consultants (planning consultant Kusao and Kurahashi, and our firm, RIM Architects) to the earliest discussions, collaborated with community leaders openly, meeting often and at length with small sub-committees and interest groups, and even having hands-on design sessions to work out new solutions side-by-side with community leaders. Ideas flowed, the community was heard and yes, the building did change — dramatically.
What began as a tall, two-story retail store and equally tall parking structure was inverted on the site, reduced to a lower single-level atop a parking deck, with abundant landscaping and additional setbacks that appealed to the community.
Was it a prototype solution? No, but it still met the programmatic needs of Best Buy.
But the process of localizing didn't stop there. Smith and his corporate counterparts allowed RIM to mix local flavor with contemporary design to create a singularly Hawaiian store design without losing the Best Buy brand image. Local lava rock replaced prototype masonry at the buildings base, asymmetrical panels dance across the façade to reflect the natural rhythms of the island landscape and dramatic metal-clad forms lend contemporary reference to Hawaiian warriors and to volcanic crater imagery.
This level of commitment to local sensibilities sold the community on the prospects of Best Buy being a good neighbor. In expressing his unqualified support, District Councilmember Gary Okino welcomed the retailer as “a model of how a company should come into our community.”
Plan of Action
What lessons can be learned from this experience? What are the keys to achieving this level of sincere community welcome? I'll offer a few for the industry to consider.
First, national retailers should reconsider their general practice of severely limiting the role of the local architect in the overall design and planning process. Architects within the community are most familiar with the current stylistic trends or dispositions of the area, and are the most familiar with the subtleties that will be recognizable and appropriate to the residents. Acceptable materials, proportions, textures and color palettes change with local tastes, a subtlety that can be very difficult to discern from the outside but will tell everyone in town whether this retailer is in touch with what is happening in their neck of the woods.
A key component of this selection is also finding an architect who is accepted by the locals, and who has earned their respect as an advocate for quality local design and exceeding expectations. This speaks to credibility. An architect who is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a “rubber stamp” for the retailer's prototype solution will not be effective.
Second, national retailers must now finally loosen their death-grip on the inflexible building footprint in favor of more truly site and community-specific solutions. This single limitation creates extremely stringent standardization leading to “decorated boxes” that have fueled the big-box industry's negative public image.
It also makes finding suitable sites much more costly and time-consuming on the real estate side of the company. With a more flexible attitude and a skilled local architect at their side, big-box retailers can place their stores into more desirable urban and infill sites. Expediting this real estate selection process and the speed to grand-opening far outweighs the minor increased cost of investing in local architects.
Third, bring the community and its various neighborhood committees and boards into the process early in the project, and often, with the local design team at your side. While expanding the discussion might appear to unduly complicate the process and create additional risk, in the end it builds trust and a collaborative spirit and can avert those last-minute tidal waves of negativity.
Fourth, listen and respond directly to the actual architectural and aesthetic concerns of the groups and allow the local architect to embrace these concerns as real and relevant to the design. If the flexibility to adapt footprints is authentic, a skilled architect will come through with solutions that satisfy reasonable requests by the community and remain viable to the retailing strategy.
It is obvious that these changes will require refocusing of priorities and resources to the role and scope of the architect. It will also require a paradigm shift away from the lightning-speed, straight-from-the-drawer prototype method that has dominated the big-box retail industry. But in the hands of a skilled architect, organized to deliver truly customized, locally relevant architectural solutions, this can be accomplished within reasonable fees and schedule and is well worth the investment. In the end, the combination of a retooled strategy, a collaborative project manager and an architect with local understanding will restore dignity to value retailing and move the industry forward.
MATTHEW GILBERTSON, AIA
Principal and VP of RIM Architects, which provides architecture, entitlement, planning, interior design and construction management services from offices in Anchorage, Ala., Guam, Honolulu and San Francisco