Big box need not be ugly
Posted: July 17, 2005
In the wider realm of architecture, it may not be cutting-edge, but in the faceless world of big-box design, the new Copps grocery store in the Madison suburb of Middleton Hills is almost revolutionary. It has a sidewalk-hugging, pedestrian-friendly entrance with a revolving door, a diagonal canopy and a plaza with a couple of picnic tables out front. Its skin is a rich mix of orange and red brick, tan stucco, split-face block and polished masonry. And there are five condo units above the store.
Even if you enter from the back, off a landscaped parking lot with a rain garden, you will encounter a well-detailed, humanly scaled building. The rooftop mechanical equipment is screened from sight; the truck dock is concealed internally; and at night the lighting is designed not to spill over into the surroundings.
The 44,000-square-foot store, which opened last month after two years of pushing and pulling, was not an easy sell for either Copps (part of the Roundy's chain) or the neighborhood. But its Prairie School design, by Ed Linville of Madison's Linville Architects, with an inviting, airy interior by Design Fabrications of Troy, Mich., is proof that big boxes (or, in this case, medium boxes) don't have to be oppressive look-alikes. And, if citizens and public officials push hard enough, they may even get something nice.
It helps if expectations are high to begin with. Middleton Hills, developed by Marshall Erdman and Associates, is an unusually well-planned subdivision, with 450 single-family homes, condos and duplexes clustered around lush wetlands and open spaces. All of the homes are built in the broadly horizontal Prairie, Bungalow or Craftsman styles, reflecting the late Marshall Erdman's long association with Frank Lloyd Wright.
Under a master plan created by the New Urbanist gurus Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the houses are close together, bedecked with porches and lined up along narrow streets - evoking the kind of close-knit, walkable neighborhood common to pre-World War II America.
Yes, block after block of Prairie houses can get a little wearisome; I can't help but think that Erdman, a restless innovator who died in 1995 just as the subdivision was getting under way, would have relaxed the strict design guidelines a bit if he were alive today, expanding the definition of street-friendliness to accommodate good contemporary design. Still, Middleton Hills is so much better planned than the average subdivision that I'm willing to forgive the Wrightian overkill, even as it extends to the supermarket.
Some residents were not so willing, however, to give up on the original plans for a mom-and-pop corner grocery. The critics mounted a legal challenge to the land transfer involved in the Copps construction (they lost), and some threatened to move if a big box were built.
But Marshall Erdman's son Dan Erdman, whose Erdman Lynch Enterprises built the store and an emerging retail stretch, said today's marketplace would not support a mom-and-pop grocery. "It was sort of a romantic vision of what we would all like to see," he said, "but you have to look at present conditions and adapt."
Adapting had its own headaches. Copps wanted a plain rectangle following a standard design formula. "But the neighbors got organized and got the model molded into something they could live with," said Jane Grabowski Miller of Erdman and Associates. The City of Middleton added more impetus for sensitive planning.
Another bone of contention: Linville and his team wanted lots of natural light; the retailer feared that would cause produce to spoil. The compromise was a few big windows and a band of smaller clerestories, all with filters.
The unusual mix of materials was no big deal. "Roundy's was receptive to the idea that downtowns didn't happen all at once, and that a weaving of materials would give the store more individuality than a big, lumpy box" with uniform texture, Linville said.
"It's not utopia," said his associate, Elizabeth Cwik, "but it turned out pretty good."
I agree. While not every community is as picky about design as Middleton Hills, the lesson here is that if you hold big-box retailers' feet to the fire, you may get them to bend their rigid formulas. Many communities are already making headway, with ordinances regulating big-box size, design and siting; some municipalities even require money to be set aside for demolition, in case the stores are later abandoned. (For some good ideas along these lines, check out a new report, "Outside the Box: Guidelines for Retail Store Siting," prepared by the Christian Brothers Investment Services Inc. and Domini Social Investments. The Web site is http://www.cbisonline.com).
Finally, if you still think a pedestrian-friendly big box is an oxymoron, Middleton Hills' Copps might disabuse you. When I was there last week, residents were streaming in the revolving front door dragging fold-up shopping carts. Whoever thought we'd see a return to the days when suburbanites could actually walk to the grocery store?