Land Use Planning in the Internet Era: Ask the Right Questions

Corry McClellan

Market Trends

The Internet’s potential to redefine how we shop has been speculated since the late 1990s.  A storm has been brewing over the brick-and-mortar retail industry for decades, but the power of the storm is only just now being realized. How bad is the storm? According to CNN Money and the Wall Street Journal:

  • Department store employment is down 46 percent since 2001, worse than both mining and manufacturing
  • 20 to 25 percent of malls could close in the next five years, equal to 220-275 shopping centers
  • 8,600 retail stores (147 million square feet) are expected to close this year alone

Implications for Planning

Until this year, these trends seemed to apply specifically to retailers, but the rise of grocery delivery and acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon could signal that grocery stores are next. Whether retailers are simply taking their product online or going out of business entirely, only one thing matters for planners: stores are closing, and it appears to be a long-term trend. There are serious implications for cities including loss of low-skill jobs, diminished tax revenue, potential for decline of vacant areas, and diminished access to goods for people without internet access.

Key Questions

If your community or agency hasn’t assessed its land use policies in the last five years, it might be time for an update. Here are the questions you should ask:

Short term:

  • How do we brace for possible decline of existing retail?
  • How do we best address existing vacancies?

Long term:

  • How much retail is realistic in my community’s land use plan?
  • What forms are retail will remain in demand, and are they compatible with the community’s vision?
  • What do we plan for in place of retail?