The recent move chronicled by Jeff Kiger of the new adventures of old Old Navy may have scrolled past your gaze without much thought. On the surface the story seems benign as a national retail chain decides to move to a new location. However, the news of this move struck me as a perfect example of The Doughnut Effect.
The Doughnut Effect has several different meanings and implications, but the chief principle is the hole in the center surrounded by a delicious treat around the periphery: this being a metaphor for the centrifugal force of urban abandonment on 20th century cities. With the growth of American cities (not just American cities but evidenced most clearly by them) there was a migration to the suburb. This migration in search of newer, larger, and/or more affordable homes left many inner cities "hollow" and devoid of population and vitality.
The situation was exacerbated by another symptom of the suburb, the creation of the Edge City coined by author Joel Garreau. With large population concentrations now around the periphery of cities, suburbs began to take on the properties of urban areas thus eliminating the need to travel back into the city center. The characteristics of edge cities are most detrimental in towns of a certain size, worse for smaller ones and not as harmful for large ones. For some reason, there is a scale of major metropolitan areas that turns these more into nodes or neighborhoods that can create unique identity and character--primarily because of their inclusion of residential land uses in their infrastructure. Where there is no residential use in the equation (think confluence of two highways or strip mall aesthetics) the effect is significant. Smaller cities are more susceptible to this phenomenon and Rochester is no exception.
Enter Old Navy, not an intentional scapegoat, but illustrating the Doughnut Effect's most terrifying present-day byproduct: a new hollow ring of what used to be considered the doughnut's frosted goodness. You see, now that suburbs--or edge cities, or whatever you call them--have been a staple of urban planning for nearly a half century, if you want to recreate the doughnut effect you are not voiding the city center, you are leaving the former periphery whereby leaving a concentric ring of emptiness in its place. So by "leap frogging" from one commercial strip or big box complex to the next, you are literally leaving thousands of square feet (and hundreds of vacant parking spaces) to sit and decay. In the curious case of Old Navy, this need to move out occurred in only 10 years.
This is profound. The continued migration of stores and businesses to Shoppes on Maine (or Rochester 2.0) explains by its very nickname the effect it is having: burn and start again. This is not the Chicago World's Fair where we intend our buildings to last but a short time. Or is it? If that is the case, then what can these vacant big box buildings be re-purposed as? Should they be demolished and turned back into natural landscape, a la Detroit?
It seems a matter of public policy, as much as design, to determine how to stop the Doughnut Effect and subsequent ring rot. How much is the City of Rochester spending on that new 65th Street interchange again?