Many Chicagoans gasped twice in the last five years–initially when famed local department store Carson Pirie Scott announced it was closing its downtown State Street flagship after over a century, and again once discount retailer Target announced it would lease the bottom two floors of the redeveloped historic structure (designed by Louis Sullivan in 1899, above).
The new store, which opened last week, is an example of a growing trend of big-box retailers opening new urban locations, as a saturated suburbia no longer offers opportunities for growth, and and inner-city populations are seen as the last under-served frontier (note in the interior shot from the Target above, both Sears and TJ Maxx are visible across the street). Rather than imposing suburban building models onto dense downtown environments, these retailers are inventing new urban models that are smaller, more flexible, and more compatible with pedestrian-friendly environments (see this recent article from the New York Times on the subject). The Target on State Street has been getting some good reviews for its sensitivity to the historic architecture, its well-designed storefronts, and the modest proportions of its famous logo.
As Birmingham strives to entice more retail to the city center and adjacent neighborhoods, retailers are increasingly primed to work with cities using solid urban design principles, rather than insisting on older, more suburban paradigms (above, the Kmart off of Astor Place in Manhattan, in the former Wanamaker’s Department Store). In a place like downtown Manhattan (or to a lesser degree downtown Chicago), the entry of big-box retailers has been controversial due to the preexisting network of independent retailers in those neighborhoods. In Birmingham, that network doesn’t widely exist, making the entry of new retailers a much more promising possibility–especially if we insist on the kind of good design for which, well, Target has made a name for itself.