Category Archives: Big Boxes

To the Table, Reluctantly

I don’t like the Gateway Town Center proposal. I don’t like anything about it.

I don’t think we need another big box and we surely don’t need another pharmacy. I don’t like the effects a Lowe’s will have on locally-owned hardware, lumber, appliance, kitchen and bath, and garden stores throughout the county. I am concerned that even more retail for Geneseo will mean even less business for every other surrounding burgh.

I don’t like the effects of another huge retail plaza on already congested roads. 20A is already overcapacity, as indicated by all the Geneseoans who refuse to use it. More traffic and more sprawl will do more damage to our community’s character and our Historic Landmark status.

I don’t think large-scale retail in small towns and rural counties is viable in the long term. Rising fuel prices and the slowly dawning reality that a nation cannot continually spend more than it earns will soon leave us with far more retail space that we can fill.

I particularly don’t like the tactics that have been used by Newman and others to see this project built. The Planned Development District (PDD) law was enacted to subvert local planning and zoning, no two ways about it. The Gateway was never intended for large-scale retail development. Good people on the defunct master plan committee, the Planning Board, and in the public have been treated badly due to their opposition to this project.

For all these reasons and others, I’d like nothing more than for Newman to pack it up and leave. I believe that’s what’s best for the community and I believe that’s what the law requires.

For all these reasons and others, it’s hard for me to – I’m having troubling finding and typing the words – say that I support the Planning Board’s efforts to find a compromise.

Their effort to minimize the worst effects of the proposed Lowe’s by requiring a smaller building facing Volunteer Road with only limited access to 20A is noble. They have breathed some life back into the zoning for the Gateway. They have tried to use the PDD law as it should be used – to allow “flexibility” in development – rather than to eviscerate local zoning. They have tried to limit the sprawl to the east by directing development down Volunteer Road.

In the process, they have helped to bring this matter closer to a much-needed conclusion and to avoid protracted litigation.

I have my concerns with their proposed compromise. I think the proposed Lowe’s should be required to be the 94,000 square foot model that Lowe’s advertises as its small town model. (It’s crazy how what was once huge – the size of our first Wal-Mart – is now “small”.) I think every effort should be made to ensure that the 20A access being permitted for trucks and emergency vehicles doesn’t become the entrance to the next big plaza to the east.

Most of all, I think the Planning Board and the Town Board must resist any effort to undo the compromise that has been reached.

Finally, I also think it would be a good idea for the Planning Board to direct the Town Board to scrap the PDD law, or at least modify it to limit how much proposals can deviate from the existing zoning. Let this be the last time the community goes through such an ordeal.

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Never Mind

Back in the day, when Newman was new to town, energy levels were higher, and it was still possible to believe that it wasn’t a done deal, the Town Planning Board set a pretty high bar for the review of Newman’s Big Box plans. That bar took the form of a requirement that Newman complete an Environmental Impact Statement analyzing “potentially significant adverse impacts” associated with its proposal.

Among the potential impacts Newman was required to analyze was the precedent this project would set for future development in the area. Quoting directly from the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) and Scope endorsed by a majority of the Board, concern was expressed that “large-scale development tends to occur in clusters” and that “approving Newman’s proposal would “establish a precedent that will encourage high density retail development and possibly additional Big Box retailers along NYS Rt. 20A and within the Gateway Overlay District.”

Demonstrating that these were not abstract concerns, it was noted that “we have already seen this in our community with the building of Wegmans and Wal-Mart’s Plazas” and that Newman itself had originally submitted “plans to develop 14 acres to the east of the proposed project now in question.”

To evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of these impacts, the Scope endorsed by the Board required that Newman and, ultimately, the Town Planning Board itself, complete a “Precedent Analysis” to determine “the precedent [Newman’s proposal] may establish for future similar development in the Gateway Overlay District, as well as other nearby zoning districts.”

As recently as January of this year, after reviewing the environmental impact materials Newman had submitted and finding them deficient, the Town reiterated that it was still waiting for an analysis of “the impacts of additional similar development within the Gateway Overlay District … including the potential traffic impacts of same.”

So, now that the Town Planning Board has accepted Newman’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) as complete, what have we learned about the precedent effects of Newman’s project?

Nothing. Nada. Not a damn thing, except that Newman apparently did not want to answer this question and the Town Planning Board got tired of asking. As I write, the two volumes and 600 pages of Newman’s FEIS sit next to me, silent on what for me has long been the central question of this entire project.

Remember PDDG’s much talked about slogan: “Geneseo Yes, Genrietta No”? That’s a concern about precedent in bumper sticker form.

Volume I of the FEIS contains Newman’s (and the Town’s) responses to the many questions posed by the public. This is the heart of the FEIS. In response to concerns expressed about precedent, we are told that the Gateway “may” become “more desirable” to retailers, but that the Town retains the right to say no to future developers.

We are also told that Newman answered these questions last year, in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), submitted well before the Town told them it still hadn’t completed the required Precedent Analysis.

What Newman had done, and what it apparently thinks counts as a Precedent Analysis, was to complete an Economic Impact Analysis of its proposal way back in early 2006. Nowhere in that analysis, or in the independent evaluation of that analysis completed a year later, is there any information that might be construed as a precedent analysis.

The closest we get is an analysis of the effects of Big Boxes on Main Streets. This is useful and interesting information, but go back to the EAF and Scope quoted earlier and see that the concern driving the Precedent Analysis was the effect Newman’s proposal would have on “similar” or “Big Box” development in Geneseo.

Once upon a time, the Town Planning Board obligated Newman to tell us and obligated itself to make them, whether Wal-Mart and Lowe’s get together and give birth to Target or Best Buy or Dick’s or whether we had sprawled as far as we were going to sprawl. These aren’t impossible questions to answer. Lord knows there are plenty of other communities to look to for answers.

In response to those concerns, all we get are bland assurances that we control our own destiny and that future sprawl will be limited by the amount of available land. Those answers don’t inspire much confidence and they certainly don’t constitute a Precedent Analysis.

Decision Day Approaches

The Town Planning Board’s recent determination that Newman Development has provided all the information it needs to evaluate the impacts of Newman’s big box plans represents a big step toward the biggest step in this long saga. Now the board must decide whether those impacts – on traffic, on community character, and on growth – are bearable in a community already strained by retail sprawl.

Should the Board decide Newman’s plans fit into Geneseo’s plans, a huge hurdle will have been cleared. There will still remain other hurdles. The County Planning Board will need to give its approval, the Town Board will need to vote to rezone the property in question, and the Town Planning Board will need to work out the details of the site plan. The available record indicates these decisions are but formalities; speed bumps in the path of Newman’s bulldozer.

Now, at long last, is the time for the crucial decision to be made.

We at PDDG are busy preparing a memo to the Planning Board urging them to reject Newman’s plans. That document, which we will post online on The PDDG File when it is complete, will make three major arguments: that Newman’s plans are in impermissible conflict with Geneseo’s plans, that another big box will strain our infrastructure and cement our status as Genrietta, and that the legal requirements for making a final decision on Newman’s project have not been met due to Newman’s intransigence and the Board’s lack of proper oversight.

At its meeting on April 28 and perhaps at a subsequent meeting or two, the Board will take up these issues. We’re not particularly hopeful of the outcome, despite our confidence in our arguments.

Since helping to persuade the Board eighteen months ago that Newman’s plans required the completion of the environmental review process that is now being completed, we have had a harder time persuading the Board that Newman’s plans are fatally flawed.

Where we see Genrietta, a community that has lost its soul and its character, the Board seems to see just another big box. Where we see traffic gridlock, the Board seems to see just a few more cars. Where we see careful planning and zoning designed to prevent exactly what Newman proposes, the Board seems to see the PDD law as a get out of jail free card. Where we see Newman flouting its legal obligations, the Board seems to see business as usual.

Perhaps our standards are too high. Maybe community self-determination must bow to the almighty tax dollar. Maybe you can’t really say no to “progress,” however ugly it may appear. Maybe the procedural train wreck that has been occurring ever since Newman helped us write the PDD law they now seek to exploit is simply par for the development course.

We’ll soon see what the Planning Board decides. There is some room for optimism. Statements from Planning Board members at their April 7 meeting showed some reservations about Newman’s plans.

If the Board sides with Newman, we’ll review our legal options. That’s not intended as a threat. Rather, it represents a recognition of our core belief that Newman’s plans are for Newman’s benefit and are contrary to Geneseo’s laws and Geneseo’s interests.

In the end, the truth of that proposition will have to be determined.

Magical Thinking

Friend and fellow traveler Jim Allen uses the term “magical thinking” to refer to that special brand of nonsense in which benefits come without costs, growth goes on forever, and every meal is a free lunch. I really like the term. It is a cheerful, almost whimsical way of calling out bullshit.

Two different examples of magical thinking have drawn my attention recently. Both figure prominently in Newman Development Group’s efforts to realize their big box dreams.

The first is found in their effort to measure the capacity of Route 20A. It’s an important issue. At some point, the amount of traffic on 20A will exceed the carrying capacity of the road. Signs of this are already seen in the long delays getting on to 20A and the large number of people who have simply quit using it.

Next will be the need to widen the road, a move that is tremendously expensive and nowhere to be found in DOT’s plans or budgets. Due to its likely effects on the Homestead’s stone wall and on the general character of the community, widening 20A is also a move that would greatly increase the jeopardy of Geneseo’s National Historic Landmark District status.

The Planning Board is wise to try to determine how much more traffic and how much more traffic-intensive development Geneseo can bear. The answer that Newman provides, perhaps reflecting their own considerable interest in traffic that goes on forever, reveals some magical thinking.

Determining the capacity of a road is complicated. It involves figuring out the maximum number of vehicles that can move past a certain point (an intersection with a traffic signal, in this case) in a certain time and then reducing that number by the amount of time the light is red, the width and grade of the road, the number of trucks, the characteristics of the area in which the road is located, and so on. Traffic engineers figure ideal flow is 1,900 vehicles per lane per hour.

In its calculations, Newman determined that 20A operates at approximately 97% efficiency, meaning that the actual flow during green lights will be 97% of the ideal flow. The research I did, and I readily admit I’m not a traffic engineer, indicates this is far too generous. The residential character of 20A, the volume of trucks, the grade of the road, and so on, likely diminish its actual flow to something closer than 90% of ideal flow.

This difference is enough to change the point at which 20A is maxed out from sometime in the 2020s to sometime around 2010 (depending on the assumed rate of traffic growth in the meantime). Put another way, the difference is enough to mean that 20A’s capacity is an issue now, not sometime safely in the future.

The second kind of magical thinking on my mind is found in the claims of Newman and others that retail sprawl on 20A can continue without any adverse effects on local businesses. Somehow, we are to believe, $30-$40 million (the annual receipts expected at Lowe’s) can be transferred into Lowe’s cash registers without coming out of anyone else’s cash register.

I recognize that some of this business will be returned to Geneseo from Henrietta, moving from one big box to another. I also recognize that this business will bring jobs and taxes with it. I even recognize that some of those coming to our big boxes may also stop at a local business.

However, it is magical thinking, not to mention callous, to believe there aren’t real and serious costs to this. As with traffic, these costs can already be seen in the vacant groceries and quiet Main Streets throughout the County. Whether on our Main Street, elsewhere in Geneseo, or on someone else’s Main Street, by Newman’s own estimates, at least $5-$10 million more will be lost by local businesses if Lowe’s opens.

Then there are the secondary costs. As I wrote last week, money spent locally stays in local businesses and in local hands far longer than does money spent in chains. Newman didn’t even consider these costs, though they are considerable.

The Full Value of Main Street

The Business section of last Sunday’s (March 23) Democrat & Chronicle included a front page article on the problems faced by Main Street businesses in a retail economy dominated by Big Boxes and other chains.

I was pleased to see it. As the article pointed out, with some choice quotes from Geneseo’s Louise Wadsworth, Main Streets are struggling to find their place, their market niche, as centers of value, service, and specialization, in a shopping landscape of malls, strip malls, plazas, and power centers.

Yet, I came away from the article with a sense that it was a story only half told. While we all recognize the appeal – nostalgic, quaint, attractive, authentic, human-scaled – of Main Streets, and while we all root for their success, their value is far more than just to our senses. Main Streets and locally-owned businesses are a critical cog in a healthy and sustainable local economy.

To draw some attention to this other half of the story, I wrote the following letter to the editor:

Sunday’s article, “Village stores struggling,” was a welcome reminder of the costs that Big Boxes and retail sprawl have on Main Streets and locally-owned businesses. I’m sure many of us feel a sense of loss at the closing of these businesses.

Missing from the article, however, was a consideration of just how great an economic loss this represents. The value of Main Streets is not simply the authentic alternative they provide to chain stores or the nostalgic longing that they satisfy.

Money spent in local businesses is more likely to stay in the community, to pay local workers and suppliers, earn interest in local banks, pay for local advertising, be counted by local accountants, and support local charities. This “local premium” pays significant dividends not paid by chain businesses.

Local businesses deserve our patronage. They also deserve the support of lawmakers. Zoning that limits store sizes and discourages sprawl, limits on subsidies to retailers, and efforts to insure that developers bear the costs they impose on infrastructure are a good place to start.

The “local premium” that I refer to is real and quantifiable, though rarely do we go to the trouble. Research by Civic Economics, the state of the art practitioners of economic impact analyses, has found that local businesses “generate more than three times the local economic activity of their competitor chain stores on equal revenue.” I expect to hear more about this at next week’s APOG conference on economic development.

Though the economic impact analysis that has been conducted for the proposed Geneseo Lowe’s is a great step forward in the thorough local review of development proposals, it does not consider the local premium. Rather, it includes only the most easily quantified impacts: on jobs and taxes.

Even there, it tends to favor positive impacts, measuring the new property and sales taxes that will be provided by the Lowe’s store, but not measuring the property taxes that will be lost by residential properties devalued by traffic and commercial properties – throughout the county – devalued by excess capacity. Likewise for jobs, with new jobs and wages easily measured, while jobs and hours worked that are lost and wages that are held down are harder to measure.

Patronizing Main Streets is not simply an exercise in nostalgia or a way to find that hard-to-find item. It is an investment in our communities. Without that investment, the community, in the many senses of the word, will be lost.

Lesson #1

As PDDG’s point people, Corrin and I try to keep our readers informed about the status of Newman Development’s PDD application and what we’re doing to try to defeat this proposal. Because we’re having more than the usual amount of difficulty in figuring out what’s going on at the moment, this report may be a bit sketchy.

Back in September, with an election looming and under pressure by the pro-Lowe’s incumbents to produce some good news, the Town Planning Board declared Newman’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) complete. This allowed the former Supervisor to claim that a huge hurdle had been cleared and that State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) review of Newman’s proposal was done.

Turns out the Supervisor was wrong, on both counts. Not only is a completeness decision not a significant milestone in reviewing a proposal, the decision itself was premature. Missing from the DEIS Newman submitted were a number of studies required by the “scope” (guidelines) the Planning Board had provided to Newman.

Lesson #1: Newman’s unwillingness to complete these studies, combined with the Planning Board’s reluctance to recognize just how committed Newman is to avoiding accountability and disclosure about the impacts of its proposal, are the principle sources of delay in this long saga.

Without directly acknowledging that its completeness decision was premature, the Town Planning Board later required Newman to complete a number of additional studies (required by the scope) and produce additional information to support its proposal. Newman submitted these supplementary materials in early February.

Since then, developments have been hard to follow.

After reviewing Newman’s supplementary materials, the Town apparently decided they were still incomplete and otherwise inadequate (see Lesson #1). Rather than communicating these concerns in writing – as appears to be required by SEQRA, and as would seem to be prudent practice in a process this contentious – Town representatives apparently met with representatives of Newman to discuss these issues on Feb. 15.

Our efforts to obtain any records of this meeting, which should be public under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), have so far been unsuccessful. However, last week, we were able to get copies of new submissions of additional information by Newman that apparently resulted from that meeting, essentially supplementary supplementary information.

Among the highlights of the new materials is a report emphasizing the importance of direct road access from 20A to the proposed Lowe’s. (The report, a 6.2 Mb. pdf file, is available here.) You may recall that this has become a significant point of contention because the planning and zoning for the Gateway clearly prohibits such a road.

Remarkable about this report is the way in which Newman professes great concern about traffic on 20A in front of their proposed store, a concern not apparent in their “no limits to growth” approach to traffic elsewhere on 20A and Lima Rd. The “solution” to these traffic problems, it turns out, is direct access to 20A. (We have also posted their latest supplementary reports on Lima Road and 20A capacity.)

To my admittedly jaundiced eye, the real reason for this concern is found hidden right in the middle of the report, when they write that the 20A access they so badly want “has also been designed to connect to adjacent parcels that may be developed in the future.”

Isn’t that a happy coincidence? Newman is using its newfound concern about traffic to justify its effort to open up more 20A road frontage to retail sprawl. Make no mistake about it; a proposal for more retail development to the east would follow Lowe’s the way night follows day and cars follow retail.

Even after its most recent submissions, there appears to be significant omissions from the record created by Newman (see Lesson #1, again). Most notably, the scope requires a precedent analysis, examining the potential effects of a Lowe’s on subsequent retail development and traffic in the Gateway. No such study has been produced. At some point, it will have to be done.

We’re waiting.

Goldilocks and the Two Bears

There are at least 92 Wal-Mart’s and 51 Lowe’s in New York State. Yet, as far as I have been able to determine, there are only three communities similar in size and circumstances to Geneseo which host both of these Big Boxes.

Many places host both a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s, often across the street from one another. They go together, the latter following the former as part of the sprawling homogenization of the American landscape. However, most of these places are large suburbs, such as Henrietta, Greece, Victor, or Amherst, or medium-sized cities, from Ithaca to Canandaigua to Elmira, Binghamton, and Schenectady.

The three New York communities most comparable to Geneseo – Norwich, Oneida, and Oneonta – represent the best opportunity to look into our future and see what a Lowe’s in Geneseo might mean for future retail development. What happens to a small town when a Wal-Mart is joined by a Lowe’s?

Does this combination satisfy the market, creating just the right amount of retail development (the Goldilocks scenario) or does the opening of the Big Box home improvement retailer near a Wal-Mart contribute to a new wave of chain stores that gobble up open space and small business (the two bears)?

Armed with Google Maps, Wikipedia, and other handy search tools, I have set out to answer these questions.

My criteria for communities comparable to Geneseo is that they be located in a primarily rural county, that they be more than 20 miles away from any city or any community that might be described as a suburb of a larger city, that they be the “market center” of their county, and that the county be comparable in size to ours.

By these criteria, communities somewhat similar to ours (and communities from which we can still learn something), such as Glen Falls, Ogdensburg, Oswego, Canandaigua, and Auburn did not make the cut, mostly because their home counties have multiple market towns or are far larger than Livingston County.

Norwich, a city of 7,500 and a town of an additional 4,000, is the county seat of Chenango County. There are no other large town or villages in the county, which has 52,000 residents, and no other communities that host a big box. The nearest city is Binghamton, 40 miles to the southwest.

Despite its small size, Norwich hosts an array of chain retailers comparable to Geneseo’s, including Super Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Sears, Peebles, Tractor Supply, Fashion Bug, Sherwin Williams, Eckerd, and Rite Aid, as well as a full complement of chain fast food and auto parts stores. Its Lowe’s, a smaller 122,000 square foot (compared to the 170,000 store proposed here), opened in fall, 2006.

According to a local official with whom I spoke, the opening of the Super Wal-Mart forced the closing of grocery stores in two neighboring towns. The opening of Lowe’s was followed by the closing of a long-time hardware store, a local institution in Norwich.

A local lumber yard is hanging in there, though business is down and its closing “would not come as a surprise.” On top of all this, rumors are flying that Target is interested in the large parcel adjacent to Lowe’s. New, smaller chain businesses have already opened.

Oneida, which was discussed last year, is a city of 11,000 in Madison County, which has a population of 69,000. Though Wampsville is the county seat, Oneida is the undisputed market center and home to the only Big Boxes in the county. It is a former manufacturing center, whose principal industries now are gambling and retail.

The Turning Stone Casino is located north of the mostly hollow town center, just off the Thruway, while retail sprawls to the west. The Five Corners area hosts Super Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Sears, Tractor Supply, and numerous smaller chains. Big Lots, Dollar Tree, Fashion Bug, and Rite Aid are also found in Oneida. Their Lowe’s, which opened just over a year ago, is 147,000 square feet, including the garden center.

Though it is too soon to know the full effect Lowe’s will have on subsequent retail development in Oneida, an article in this Tuesday’s Syracuse Post-Standard provides an early clue. The developer of the Lowe’s is now proposing a five-store retail plaza right next to it, to host national chain stores.

Oneonta is a city of 13,000 and a town of 5,000 in Otsego County, which has a population of 62,000. It is home to a SUNY campus, Hartwick College, and all of the county’s big boxes. It is located halfway between Binghamton and Schenectady, the largest cities in the area. There are no other large communities in the county, whose seat is Cooperstown.

For a community of its size and circumstances, Oneonta is host to a truly staggering range of chain retailers, including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Kmart (now closed), Steve & Barry’s (an 82,000 square foot chain clothing store that replaced Kmart), JC Penney, Sears, Tractor Supply, Bath & Body Works, Bed Bath & Beyond, Foot Locker, Office Max, Fashion Bug, Radio Shack, FYE, GNC, Borders, Waldenbooks, Sherwin Williams, Rite Aid, and Eckerd. More chains are on the way in this very active retail market.

What do we learn from this exercise? Most importantly, that there are few New York communities like Geneseo with a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s. We also learn that Lowe’s sets a precedent that attracts more chain retail development to host communities, even in small towns and small counties.

Just as Lowe’s follows Wal-Mart, the communities whose Lowe’s have been opened the longest host the most retail sprawl and experience a second wave of retail development. That the Lowe’s proposed for Geneseo is significantly larger than in comparable communities suggests a stronger possible pull for follow-on retailers.

I should also point out that median family income in Livingston County is $50,513, considerably higher than in Chenango County ($39,711), Madison County ($47,889), or Otsego County ($41,110).

Considered in conjunction with the prominent presence of chain retailers in Geneseo and the availability of land in the Gateway, approving Newman’s PDD application promises plenty of sprawl in our future.

A final note: I think that understanding the precedent that would be set by the opening of a Lowe’s is the most important issue Geneseo faces in deciding whether or not to approve Lowe’s. It is that precedent that will determine how much additional traffic and sprawl we will face.

I invite readers to scrutinize the communities I have identified as comparable and the conclusions I have drawn from those communities and to suggest alternative communities and conclusions. Feel free to post a comment or send me an e-mail.