Costco, Buy Local and the Carbon Footprint of my Light Fixture

The hint of a Costco in Rose Quarter had alternative transportation activists up in arms last week. Perhaps the sentiment was best expressed by this tweet:

Or, as my husband put it this morning, “once you’ve bought a gallon jar of mayonnaise, you don’t walk it home.” [from @jessicaroberts]

I honestly don’t know if this proposal is serious or even viable on a number of fronts, and since it could conceivably result in a zoning question coming before the Planning and Sustainability Commission I serve on, it would not be appropriate for me to render a judgment. But it once again calls the question of big box retail in the central city, and I think that merits some reflection.

I’m going to start by relating a story. A few years ago I replaced a vintage 1970’s light fixture in my upstairs hallway. Being energy conscious I installed a fluorescent light. On the evening of December 30th, it went dark.

So on New Year’s Eve day, I opened it up, removed the rather uniquely shaped bulb and trooped down to the local hardware store, which did not stock that bulb. I’m fortunate that my neighborhood also sports a specialty lighting supplier (Globe Lighting) and I headed down there to find that they had closed 10 minutes earlier for the holiday.

Since the fixture lights the stairway, it was a safety issue to get it working again, so on New Year’s Day I made a purpose-specific auto trip to Home Depot, only to find that they did not stock it either.

On Monday (after having strung a utility light in my hallway) I walked back to Globe Lighting. They did not have the bulb either, but referred me to sunlan Lighting, a wonderful shop on N. Mississippi that appears to have every lightbulb known to man, and a resource I won’t forget! I purchased two bulbs (so I would have one on hand the next time it burned out).

For the record, my trip to Mississippi was a transit trip-chain that included a visit to Kaiser on Interstate for a blood test.

As I was buying the bulbs, the proprietor suggested “keep the packaging in case it’s the ballast, not the bulb.” This was prophetic, and today I took another purpose-specific auto trip to Home Depot to buy another fixture (which will use CFL bulbs that I can purchase at my local grocery store).

So what’s the lesson here? Resolving this took six trips, four of which were accomplished or could have been accomplished by transit, walking or biking. But despite my preference for local shopping there were two auto trips to a big box store. Why? One was the only opportunity on a holiday, the other was for selection (my local hardware store had maybe 3 fixtures, Home Depot had 20+ in the category I was looking at). So my VMT and carbon emissions would clearly have been reduced if there were a Home Depot in the central city. And all the items I was considering purchasing could have been transported via a bike, walking or transit trip.

So is big box appropriate for the central city? At various times I have heard arguments against it ranging from the local businesses it would displace (a principal argument against a Home Depot at the Burnside Bridgehead), to induced auto travel, to opposition to a business because of its labor and other business practices (Walmart).

But on the other side of the argument, a lot of people in our society (including yours truly – we won’t talk about my relationship with Fry’s – the local Radio Shack will never come close) shop at these establishments occasionally or more frequently. How much VMT is being created by trips from inner Portland to Hayden Island, east county or Washington County?

That’s certainly something I’d want modeled if we were considering a serious proposal for a big box site in the central city…

19 responses to “Costco, Buy Local and the Carbon Footprint of my Light Fixture”

  1. Good thoughts Chris. I could support a CostCo at that location as long as a lot of thought went into integrating transit and biking facilities. Its not my money but I wonder if a big box can be completely integrated without too much trafic impact. Good public relations for Costco, more options for shoppers etc. Safeway would hate it but aren’t they in reality a big box too? They’re not exactly the “neighborhood grocer.” And I could see myself pulling my bike trailer into the Costco parking lot and taking food home to my family. For inspiration look at the Volkwagen manufacturing facility completely integrated into the downtown of a large German city. Sorry I don’t have the link or the name of the city… ;-)

  2. I feel like if a big box store had respect for the neighborhood it was moving into, people wouldnt be AS sour on them in general as they are.

    Here in Indy, we had a grocer erect a new store a few years back. They chose an older neighborhood to locate in, with limited space. In the end, the top of the store ended up as parking, while a smaller surface lot sat adjacent. While it wasnt a “local business” it could still be considered a win since the developer didnt mow down half a block to put a serious amount of surface parking.

    The result has been a successful integration into the neighborhood.

    If more national chains would follow these sorts of paths to business, at least it would be a token of good will instead of just using the plans from another small town where land is cheap, and sprawl isnt on anyone’s mind allowing them to play huge parking lots…

  3. Why is everyone so up-in-arms about “big box” retailers now? SEARS & ROEBUCK and Meier & Frank had big box stores in the city 100 years ago. And Fred Meyer is in the city now.

    The problem is the cheap-as-$#!+ buildings and insanely huge parking lots. Not the retail itself.

    I would walk or bike to a Costco in the city. And I would love a Frys or Best Buy in the city. Why are we asking people in the central city to go to the Suburbs for these stores? They can be built in the city too. We have lots of large buildings in the city where a Best Buy or something could take up the whole second and third floors or something like that, leaving the street open for “foot traffic” oriented stores.

  4. I was so glad when REI relocated from Hayden Island to inner NW, though I can’t aford much there anymore. And I was very disappointed when New Seasons put a parking lot in front of their Arbor Lodge store on the MAX Yellow Line. So I would argue while there is value in bringing large retail into the central city, store design must conform to urban standards…parking under or behind, doors on the street, etc.
    Sunlan Lighting is a marvel and a great example of dedicated locally owned retail.
    Last, I still prefer a baseball park on the PPS property designed to accommodate major league size when someone with deep pockets steps up.

  5. Any initial word on whether this would be a conventional Costco or something more like the one in Downtown Vancouver BC? I’m inclined to believe it would be a conventional Costco, Seattle has a conventional store just south of the ballparks.

    If its to be a conventional Costco, put it on that Oregonian (newspaper) owned land along US 30 in Industrial NW Portland.

    Rose Quarter is a mess and the last thing it needs is a flood of additional cars pouring off I-5 to a huge suburban-style big box store surrounded by acres of parking. This is one of the few large parcels in the Central City, it would be a shame to waste it on a Costco store. If we ever do get baseball back (minor or MLB) and want it downtown, this is the site. I was hoping this stretch of Broadway would eventually resemble a main street lined with retail and restaurants.

    I dont mind big box stores, I care about how they fit into the cityscape. I’d love to see the Downtown Target store in the Galleria. While youre at it, how about a Best Buy downtown too?

  6. Clearly a huge portion of the objection to big box stores is that the demand they create for cheap quality / low price goods pushes the global labor market to generate near slave labor working conditions for peoples in some other country. This ‘externalization’ of labor cost which creates real harm to poor folks elsewhere and horrible unemployment here , is immoral and you contribute by shopping there , and by letting them build in our City. The PPS site should be a world class baseball stadium with the radiant sun setting in the outfield behind our lovely downtown.

  7. “The PPS site should be a world class baseball stadium with the radiant sun setting in the outfield behind our lovely downtown.”

    …with the setting sun shining right into the batter’s eyes as a 95 mph fastball comes hurtling towards his head?

    Sorry, any baseball field sited on the east side of Portland simply will not have a view of downtown over the outfield wall. That’s not how baseball fields are laid out. For more info, see

  8. There’s a reason left-handers are called “southpaws”. Baseball fields are laid out with the outfield to the east, for exactly the reason that nuovorecord states (to keep the setting sun out of the batter’s eyes). As a result, the pitcher faces west, and a leftie will have his pitching hand oriented to the south–hence, a southpaw.

    Now, as to the topic at hand… :)

    There are several different types of large retailers. Traditional department stores like Sears or Macy’s, higher-end variety chains like Freddies, discount variety retailers like WalMart or Target, warehouse stores like Costco, and “category killers” like several chains ending in “Depot”. Each has a different business model, with different effects on (and demands of) transport and land use.

    In some cases, the “transit unfriendliness” of the store is related to the size or bulk of the merchandise–you’re simply not going to be able to take a large screen TV or 200 square feet of ceramic tile on the bus. The two options for getting such a load from the store to the place where it is needed is either a personal vehicle of some sort, or delivery. Delivery is often an economic option, as many of these goods require special handling or expert installation once delivered. The traditional department store, back when such places were located predominantly in downtowns rather than in suburban shopping malls, did routinely offer free (or inexpensive) delivery, as many of their customers came without cars–and delivery is a service which is cheaper to provide in denser environments than in suburbs or rural places.

    In other cases, the incompatibility with urban environments is driven by cost issues. Retailers like Walmart and Costco derive a lot of their cost savings by a) eliminating the physical separation of warehouse and showroom (goods are received and warehoused on site–compare this with Fred Meyer, which maintains a large and expensive warehouse facility out in Clackamas which receives goods from suppliers then trucks them in Freddy’s-branded trucks to stores–I often wonder how Fred Meyer manages to stay in business), and b) encouraging customers to buy in bulk, reducing per-transaction costs. Integration of the warehouse with the showroom requires a lot more real estate, which can be uneconomical in dense environments; and bulk purchases has the same issue as buying large/heavy items: it requires use of a transportation mode with a large cargo capacity (not transit, not walking, not biking) to make it work. And “delivery” is a dirty word to cost-focused retailers.

  9. I’m not familiar with the Costco in Vancouver, but I’ve visited a lot of “big box” stores (Home Depot, Best Buy) in Manhattan. There’s no reason that a big box concept can’t be integrated into an urban framework; it’s purely a question of design. Build a Costco right up against the street with small retail/restaurant space on the outside, parking on the roof … it might work.

    As for a baseball stadium, I prefer the Lincoln High School site to the Blanchard site. It’s already served by the Red and Blue lines, and could very easily become a transit hub, served by buses running on Jefferson and Columbia and/or Salmon and Taylor. (This would benefit PGE park as well). I can also envision parking structures built directly over I-405 between Salmon and Jefferson to serve the stadium, maybe flanking a new plaza over the freeway.

    But all this is probably academic, since PPS is unlikely to move unless somebody throws a LOT more money at them.

  10. While residents in well-to-do neighborhoods probably won’t hurt for shopping options–upscale retailers generally don’t have much to fear from WalMart or Target moving in next door–it’s worthwhile to note that the same dynamic often doesn’t exist in poor neighborhoods. A common complaint throughout the country is that retail in slums often consists of unfriendly local merchants offering shoddy merchandise and lousy service at high prices. Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young (speaking on behalf of WalMart) rather clumsily made the point a few years back. While the racist nature of his remarks provoked a predictable turd-fan collision; they also obscured his point: major chain retailers are generally less likely to overcharge when they locate in poor areas than are local merchants, both due to the economies of scale they possess, and due to a tendency to have more uniform pricing across their storefronts.

    Of course, better public mobility (including public transit) helps alleviate this problem. Carless people who live in a slum where the only public transit is crowded and infrequent, frequently have no choice but to patronize the businesses in their neighborhood. And many such shopkeepers will readily tell you that their “business” model is justified by a higher cost of doing business, due to the social pathologies of poverty.

    The Washington Post last year did an interesting article on the high cost of poverty, which is highly germane to this discussion. Congressman Earl Blumenauer features prominently therein.

  11. Interesting topic; many thanks for posting this. I work downtown, and I’ve been disillusioned by the dearth of shopping options when looking for something as simple as basic hardware or pet supplies during my lunch hour, resulting in after-work errand running that’s a waste of time and mileage. Something like a Galleria Target store would be a boon IMO.

    As for a Rose Quarter Costco, if they could make it work with the area’s odd street patterns, great… but I agree with a previous post that the open land off NW Yeon might be a better choice.

    And not to veer too far off topic, but since the subject of a future baseball stadium was brought up…. Delta Park could be a viable choice. It’s served by the MAX Yellow Line and boasts plenty of open space (including that whole retail complex that’s about half empty right now).

  12. I’m ambivalent to Costco.

    Maybe save the lot for an industry that produces/manufactures something and pays well (i.e. jobs)?

    Costco, while convenient and a place that actually pays people well, might not be the best use of such a good parcel of land.

  13. Retailers like Walmart and Costco derive a lot of their cost savings by a) eliminating the physical separation of warehouse and showroom

    WalMart has a pretty big distribution center in Hermiston and one of the nation’s largest private truck fleets dedicated solely to transport items from the distribution centers to the stores.,-119.256463&spn=0.0207,0.035319&z=15

    I’m not familiar with the Costco in Vancouver, but I’ve visited a lot of “big box” stores (Home Depot, Best Buy) in Manhattan.

    The Vancouver, BC Costco store measures 415 by 335 feet (approximately). It surely would not fit in downtown Portland with its 200 foot blockfaces, unless one wants to break up the grid and occupy four city blocks, or build it on the fringe of downtown (partially defeating the purpose of a convenient location).

    The Manhattan Home Depot store appears to be 200×200 feet (which would fit in downtown Portland), but judging from the outside appearance it is a very different store than the Home Depot warehouses around here. According to this website: , they are basically a Home Depot in name only.

  14. I’m torn on how I feel about putting a Costco in downtown. My family has a business that sells exclusively to mom and pops and New Seasons. We are afraid that if people patronize Costo more, they will buy the less expensive stuff which will, in turn, erode the mom and pop shops. I mean, every suburb has one, why shouldn’t the city “proper”, too? Portland is slowly becoming a high density bedroom community to what will become larger and more powerful Washington County (my prediction is WashCo leapfrogging MultCo by 2030). I support local businesses as much as possible because my family is a local business and 90% of their income comes from selling to local businesses in Portland, the other 10% from Salem. The convenience factor is certainly nice with box stores but they contribute to offshoring of jobs to China, too, so that’s where the conundrum lies. I’ve always thought a “buy local” marketplace (something like Amazon) would be really cool and utilize bike couriers to get people their orders which are delivered more cheaply and quickly because they don’t have to travel as far. But then again, see, I’m torn. I’ve lived in both the city PROPER and in Beaverton. I much prefer living in Beaverton because it is not as crime ridden, cleaner, more ethnically diverse, has more selection of restaurants, more big boxes open longer than mom and pops, less expensive to live, not as much concrete more parks and open area, on and on. There is just the right balance between BIG BOX and local retailers in the suburbs. I rarely even go downtown unless someone from out of town is visiting and it’s kind of a once in a while treat for me and them, too. How are other cities with big boxes in their cores? Maybe compare to Seattle, VanBC, SanFran, and Manhattan? Happy New Year everyone!

    Greg T
    Beaverton, Oregon

  15. I hate to get off topic but Beaverton does not have more selection of restaurants nor does it have more parks, at least in terms of total acreage.

  16. Erik H:

    The parcel in question for a proposed Costco is much bigger than 200′ x 200′.

    It appears to be about ~450′ x 700′ by my rudimentary measurements.

  17. Just as the Galleria is more ideal for indoor mall-style shops than warehouse retail like a Target, a Costco is a poor fit for the public schools facility site. Expect 5000+ cars added to Broadway/Weidler traffic. Just when we’re trying to reduce traffic to make development there desirable, along comes a car-dependent corporate giant waving funny money. A costco will divert consumer dollars from established retailers, probably causing some to go out of business. Then costco would have no choice but to willingly obey the law of supply & demand and raise prices.

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