Chains in the City: Is Your High Horse Beneath You?

Let's consider the argument of national chains vs. small businesses.

Before I share my thoughts, I want to be clear that buying local is a base tenet of mine. I would rather buy a tomato grown in a Missouri greenhouse than one imported from Mexico. It just makes sense in every regard...less waste, less diesel miles, later harvest means better fruit, and of course supporting the regional economy. I have nothing against global commerce, it is pretty mind blowing to have fresh asparagus year round from Peru and Mexico; but, if there is a choice, I'll take local almost every time.

Taking that a step further, I understand wanting to support a business in your neighborhood or city to promote jobs, vibrancy, employment, tax base, brick and mortar businesses, etc. 

We need the most vibrant parts of St. Louis to stay vibrant (mix of businesses, homes, people, classes, price points, etc). If you want small businesses occupying storefronts and providing real city spaces, shop there otherwise they can't compete with online commerce and they'll disappear.

For my money, there is something more satisfying about buying a pack of hot dog buns at the Gustine Market in the Tower Grove South neighborhood vs. running into Schnucks or QT. 

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You get the satisfaction of supporting a small business in a beautiful building in the heart of a vibrant neighborhood without the need for a soul sucking surface parking lot. Sure, I'm no angel, I've bought the same buns from Schnucks or QT more times than not, but it is just different. Those are convenience-based decisions, not holistic ones.

I can do better.

And then there is feel and atmosphere. You can serve the same sandwich in a brick and wood St. Louis classic building or serve it up in a drywall and fluorescent lit contemporary strip mall and lunch will just be more enjoyable in the handsome building in a walkable setting.

This is not a topic unique to St. Louis, a recent weekend trip to Chicago reminded me that every city large or small wants walkable small businesses in their neighborhoods.

A Roscoe Village chamber of commerce publication in a VRBO we rented in Chicago

A Roscoe Village chamber of commerce publication in a VRBO we rented in Chicago

So yeah, I shop the city whenever possible.  That said, I have nothing against chains. In fact, I think they are necessary to provide modern convenience, choice, quality of life and diversity.

Taking it a step further, I will always go to the Target at Hampton/Chippewa to support St. Louis jobs and tax base vs. going to the Brentwood or South County Target. Why not support the schools your kids go to and the city you in which you live? Makes sense on all levels.

I have no problem with chains or larger corporations, especially when they are respectful of their surroundings. But some criticism I've recently heard from others on the topic was quite negative, like we're selling out or something or sanitizing the soul of the city. I had to internalize and think a little bit about this point of view and after visiting other larger cities and just being a normal American, I think we need both to survive and thrive.

Chains can intermingle in our neighborhoods without exclusively giving the finger to our built environment. Here are a couple examples that popped into my mind that prove the point:

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Subway

in the Soulard Neighborhood on South Broadway

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Domino's

in the Tower Grove South Neighborhood on South Grand

Now don't get me wrong, I hate the typical suburban strip malls filled with chains. They depress me to no end, especially when they are in the city. And a standalone junk food restaurant with drive thru can only struggle to fit into a neighborhood. These suburban-styled buildings are all over the city, especially just north of Delmar near Kingshighway, Grand, Jefferson, Hampton Avenue north to south, Gravois, etc.

The classic architecture and dense urban setting is foregone to bring in the drive thru's. We've got to demand better from chains entering this city. But when there is so much vacancy and cheap land, it's a tough sell. We don't need more of these. But yet, as evidenced on Hampton Avenue just north of Chippewa, a relatively nice former record store was destroyed to make way for the first Chic-fil-A in St. Louis. We continue to take steps backwards.

We need to speak up because when and our city's urban form and classic buildings are razed and these drive thru restaurants replace them and eventually go out of business we're left with mostly bad examples of what they leave behind:

Sure there are examples of re-use of chains and fast food drive thrus all over the city, but they still leave the suburban, car-centric form in our historically urban neighborhoods.

If we had form-based codes and planning and well...desire to be a better city, we could make these chains build and retrofit in a much better way. Other cities do this.

The Popeye's example above from Tower Grove South is a worst-case example for sure. It's easy to look at that and say NO MORE FAST FOOD CHAINS!  But let's give this some more thought; consider convenience and price. Anyone who has routinely hosted multiple kids over to their house know that Little Caesar's and Domino's are the cheapest options around to feed a room full of teenagers when you don't have time to cook. Most just can't afford to get PW or Vito's or Pi for a house full of kids.

Fast food is cheap, and a lot of people make that choice to feed their families. You can't deny that. Look around, ask around. And look at yourself, you mean to tell me you've never had a Big Mac attack?

Sure small and locally owned is better, but there is a place for chains and we need them to be a modern city and serve all income levels.

I recently got into a conversation with someone I trust about the potential project at Shenandoah and Grand. Thoughts of a Pelican building rehab are welcomed by all. The goodwill toward the potential tenant is not as universal. Domino's Pizza is expected to move from the South Grand location to this location. A musical chairs is not something to get excited about. But, the disdain for a chain was the driver for the unhappiness. 

I don't want our city corridors to be lined with stand-alone junk food a la Hampton, Kingshighway, etc...but this Domino's is going in a beautiful old building that will be renovated. 

Look at downtown Chicago, there are chains everywhere. We need rent-paying businesses and storefronts and lots filled with all kinds of places and getting some of that national money here just makes sense. Balance means a lot and local businesses provide more economic and soulful reasons to shop them, but come on, let's be happy if chains choose to build-out their operations in one of our old city buildings.

This should be cause for celebration, no?

I don't hate chains in the city when they make attempts to fit in vs. stand out a la the new towns, suburbs and Interstate corridors. You?

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