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Urban Planning Thu Aug 23 2012
CityTarget at State and Madison. Photo by Ken Smith
When Walmart unveiled designs to expand its presence in Chicago, the mega-retailer was met with fierce resistance by activists who feared the behemoth's presence. While unions were leading the call against Walmart's labor practices, there was an attendant concern over how the big-box would fit within the city's borders. This concern was not abstract, but rather fed by the numerous examples of gluttonous, low-slung Walmart stores that gobbled up land with abandon. With the design of a majority of Walmart's stores setback far from the street amidst a sea of parking, their typical model hardly fit within an urban context, even on a corner as disinvested as North & Cicero on Chicago's West Side.
One of the largest concerns when large-scale retailers encroach upon a neighborhood is that their presence will blot out all surrounding commerce and consign the entire neighborhood to a store's shadow. Even in struggling communities, where any sign of economic development may be welcome, strip-mall development can distort the landscape into one hegemonic bloc. Rather than being emblematic of a place that can anchor a community, the development of strip-mall centers within urban areas is but a temporary node that functions for one purpose: cheap commerce. Should the space go black, the community is left fallow.
The reality of big-box development within urban centers is that design is paramount. Aesthetics matter, and it's a large reason retailers such as Whole Foods and Target have been embraced by cities and consumers alike as assets. Target's presence in Chicago was firmly in place by the time Walmart began petitioning for a greater foothold in the city. And a main reason for this is that its stores -- having always emphasized design, down to its products - exhibited an understanding of the area in which they were built, whether it be along Roosevelt Road in the South Loop or Peterson Avenue on the Far North Side.
The latest example of this is the new CityTarget in the former Carson Pirie Scott building on State Street. The ornate Louis Sullivan-designed retail palace is one of the new CityTarget flagship locations. CityTarget -- launched simultaneously in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle -- is an agenda that takes into account the demographic and market changes that are expressing preference for urban areas, and showcases how big-box retailers can leverage these trends to their favor. CityTarget is a marked effort to capture the Loop's built-in population of workers, tourists and increasingly, residents and students. More succinctly put, CityTarget feeds the demand for basic amenities in the Loop by harnessing how "energy, created by density, carries economic potential," as Rich Varda, Senior Vice President of Store Design for Target Corporation recently stated.
CityTarget, State Street
Occupying a civic treasure is no easy task, and yet, imbued with Sullivan's most famous dictum, CityTarget seamlessly integrates into the Sullivan space. Elements of Target's branding are woven into the existing Sullivan texture, with panels painted in Target's signature red echoing Sullivan's terra cotta designs, and refurbished columns accentuating merchandise displays. An airiness pervades the interior, replacing Carson's somewhat, downtrodden stuffiness towards its final days. The store pays homage to its historic precedent, but does so while catering to a new audience.
CityTarget highlights the reverse trend as cataloged in Richard Longstreth's The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960, which largely details retail's move away from the urban center and into far-flung suburbs. Rather than shoppers following retailers, retailers are now coming to shoppers, where shoppers want to be. While Walmart has reconfigured stores to fit into smaller spaces such as the former Pearl Arts & Craft Supplies store on Chicago Avenue in River North, CityTarget represents a new hallmark in the life and death and life again of great American cities. With plans in place for at least 75, and perhaps hundreds more CityTarget locations, it represents a rethinking of the urban department store and how design acts as the catalyst for successful redevelopment, and not just redevelopment of any stripe for its own sake.
The view from behind the bullseye, overlooking State Street.