Better Models for Commercial Development

Content courtesy of Ed T. McMahon

AnyPlace, USA

When a chain store moves into town, it often brings a sense of “Anyplace, USA,” detracting from the community’s unique characteristics.

While national retail and restaurant brands generally have a preferred footprint, architectural style, and design, and any structure that’s built for infinite replication will fail to provide the sense of place that a community needs to thrive.

However, communities do not have to adopt these norms. Instead, they can advocate for development that better aligns with their unique sense of place.

As retail consultant Bob Gibbs notes, “When a chain store developer comes to town, they generally have three designs (A, B, or C) ranging from Anywhere USA to Unique (sensitive to local character). Which one gets built depends heavily upon how much pushback the company gets from local residents and officials about design & its importance.”

Communities boast tremendous negotiation power when determining how a chain will integrate into the landscape.

Retailers carefully scout and evaluate their most desirable locations and will often listen to the community’s requests in order to secure those locations.

Negotiating for Better Design

Chains may prefer their prototype design, but they will depart from their off-the-shelf design to be in an economically profitable location.


A standard Walgreens
A Walgreens in Key West, FL
A Walgreens in Key West, FL

The character of your community is more important than the preferences of a large corporation.

A standard Walmart reflects the old paradigm: a large, featureless, single-story building surrounded by acres of asphalt on a commercial strip, outside of town.
A Walmart in Bennington, VT shows how Walmart has become more flexible with exterior design, considering issues like siting, landscaping, and signage.
A Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas is housed in an attractive two-story building with a parking deck behind the store.

Communities that accept “Anywhere USA” design will lose their unique identity and sense of place.

They will also become less valuable as places to live, work, or invest.
A standard Mobil gas station and convenience store.
A Mobil station in Menominee Falls, WI, with parking and gas pumps located behind the building. The second floor also includes office space to match other buildings on the street.

Communities that are desperate for anything will get the worst of everything.

A standard Dollar General
The Dollar General store in Montevallo, AL, shows how a dollar store can be an attractive community asset if it is sensitively designed and sited.

Communities that have higher expectations get better results and this in turn makes them more desirable as places to live, invest, and visit.

A standard Home Depot
A Home Depot in Chandler, AZ, shows how the impact of a big box can be lessened by articulating the roofline, subduing the colors and adding landscaping and natural materials indigenous to the Southwest.

Communities Have a Choice

When it comes to design, citizens can play an active role in shaping community character.

Explore our resources to support placemaking in your community.

This information was adapted from a presentation given by Ed T. McMahon, president emeritus of the Main Street America board of directors, former president of Scenic America, and a noted expert on placemaking and community planning.