A cure for empty big box stores in Federal Way: Mullets and Velveeta? | Chris Carrel

Does Federal Way have a “big box” problem?

Retail-oriented communities like the F-Dub are often criticized for relying too much on big box stores. The thinking goes that the boxes are ugly, the big chains don’t always provide the highest wages for employees, and they undercut local entrepreneurs. The downturn in the economy has created a nationwide problem — empty boxes — that may make us wistful for the old days of Circuit City and GI Joes.

Across the county, big national and regional chains are closing stores, leaving behind structures that, if not attractive when they were operational, certainly aren’t appealing as empty shells. Communities are finding themselves faced with strip mall blight, lost jobs, lost sales tax and declining retail activity that can hurt adjacent surviving businesses.

Communities are also faced with the question of what to do with the buildings that remain. In many cases, leases prevent landowners from leasing to competitors of their former tenants — even if that chain is no longer in the community. This can make it near impossible to get another retailer in the space, as the big boxes are pretty specific to a certain size of retailer.

Faced with big concrete shells sitting open for years, communities are getting creative. In Austin, Texas, an abandoned K-Mart became the Spam Museum. A Laramie, Wyo., Wal-Mart became an elementary school. A Kentucky Wal-Mart became a medical center. Others have become churches and even a regional justice center.

A drive around town shows several empty boxes: The old Target, Linens ‘n Things, the old Lowe’s store, Circuit City, the previous Office Depot, and GI Joes. The last four boxes form a potentially unhealthy cluster of empty boxes around Enchanted Parkway. The loss of big anchor stores typically reduces traffic to nearby stores and can have a significant negative multiplier effect on nearby businesses. Fortunately, the Crossings, Costco and Home Depot as well as the new Lowe’s are cushioning the effect in that area.

Things certainly could be worse in the downtown core, where some big box buildings have been demolished. The Bally’s on 20th was recently torn down. Across the street, the old AMC Theater building has been gone for years, though its empty parking lot, peppered with the green growth of weeds and planter boxes, is a marginal improvement at best.

Federal Way isn’t at the point of needing creative ideas like a food product museum just yet. However, it could make a great thought exercise to think of the possibilities. How about the Velveeta Museum? Or the Mullet Institute for the Study of Unfortunate Hair Trends? Any other ideas, Federal Way? What should we do with our empty boxes?

Car washing: Talkin’ dirty

Here’s a follow-up on last month’s Thinking Locally column on residential car washing. Dan Smith and Hollie Shilley from the city’s excellent Surface Water Management utility have recently completed a study estimating the pollutant contribution of residential car washing to Federal Way streams and Puget Sound. How about 190 gallons of gas and oil, 14 pounds of dissolved copper and 400 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous, among other nasties, in the wash water? While washing one car on the street or driveway may not seem like it has much of an effect, taken together (there are more than 62,000 cars in the city), the pollutants really add up.

As I noted in the original column, washing cars at a commercial car wash is the safest option, and washing over a lawn (where pollutants are filtered out naturally) is second best. It’s when the waste water flows to the street and into our stormwater system that the toxins flow into our streams and into the Puget Sound.