Chains have nothing to lose but their sameness
by Joe Tarr
Months ago, bulldozers converged on the Cumberland Avenue strip, knocking out one of the commercial district's more popular late night eateries, Taco Bell.
The home of the chalupa and seven-layer burrito had not hit hard times. The fast food restaurant's instantly recognizable adobe structure was replaced with...an adobe structure, instantly recognizable as a Taco Bell. Looking at the new building, it's hard to tell how it differs from the old one.
"It was done because the building was old and wore out. It was a small building, it wasn't efficient," says Wayne Duke, an architect who has been building Taco Bells (and before that, Krystals) for more than 40 years. "Corporate said we had to replace it. That's about the extent of it."
Although the new Taco Bell looks a heck of lot like the old one, it is 800 square feet larger. "All we did is went in there, took a bulldozer, took the old one out, and put a new one in like there was never anything there." Duke took a standard Taco Bell design from corporate headquarters in Kentucky and altered the interior slightly, he says. "Corporate, they come out with a building design. We take it, play with it a little. We feel like [ours] is a little more efficient building."
National franchises have pretty much overrun our land, luring people with their convenience, prices and familiarity as we zip on and off the highway in our SUVs. In most cases, chains have employed large signs, loud colors, a lot of blacktop and boxy designs structured to move people in and out quickly. This approach is cheap and gives the chain a recognizable look it can stamp on any community. But this approach rarely, if ever, leads to a building of aesthetic beautyor even something that blends with its surroundings, unless those surroundings are entirely made up of other chain outlets.
"The usual marketing strategy of oil and fast-food companies is to promote the security of sameness by replicating a standardized brand image, often in garish colors and shapes designed to catch the eye of the consumers passing in their cars," writes Ronald Lee Fleming in the book Saving Face: How Corporate Franchise Design Can Respect Community Identity. "This strategy is clearly self-serving and usually indifferent to the interest of supporting local community identity. While it has a distinct impact on places with a well-defined heritage, it can also be just as detrimental to communities struggling to establish that proverbial 'sense of place.'"
Each of the various types of chainsfast food restaurants, convenience stores, large discount stores, grocershave developed their own formulas, but there are common characteristics. "The repetition of one design plan is relatively easy," says Rick Bernhardt, executive director of Nashville's Metropolitan Planning Department. "Basically, they don't require you to think."
"The things people object to most are the standard cookie cutter designs that have no distinction to them," says Norman Whitaker, executive director of the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission. "They're a rectangle....nothing's been done to distinguish them from every other building in the franchise."
The chains don't have to be this way. Compare the Ruby Tuesdays on Cumberland Avenue (retrofitted into an existing building that comes right up to the sidewalk) with one of that chain's restaurants out on Chapman Highway or Broadway (surrounded by blacktop and looking like they could be anywhere). Or compare the Walgreen's at Campbell Station in Farragut, a brick Colonial building, with one of that pharmacy's countless other drugstores.
Bernhardt says some chains do a better job than others with design. "The classic chain that does the best job day in, day out is Starbucks. It has small stores. But their focus and approach is fitting in with the community," Bernhardt says. "Walgreen's is probably at the bottom of that list."
There's no magic to getting chains to use pleasing designs that enhance or, at the very least, blend into their surroundings.
"I have found franchises, national firms, to be as difficult to work with as people say. But the reality is they will change. They're not going to simply change in response to someone wanting them to change," Bernhardt says. "They're going to change in communities that know what they want, and have defined their design guidelines, and are fair and equitable."
In Orlando, Bernhardt worked with a large grocery chain that opened a store in a downtown area. Although the chain was not known for progressive designs, Bernhardt worked with them to produce a prototype store that used more narrow aisles and smaller carts to adapt to smaller space.
Farragut has been relatively progressive, by East Tennessee standards, in controlling the look of franchises. The town's most aggressive legislation is a complex ordinance controlling the size and placement of signs, says Bob Hill, a Planning Commission member. "You can tell the difference from the signs when you're in Farragut. We don't allow large signs," he says.
The town does not have anything like architectural review, but has tried to offer developers flexibility in hopes of getting better-looking buildings.
"We've tried to give developers some latitude. We'll let him do 15-foot setback on one side and 35-foot setback on another if it makes the development look better and works better for him," Hill says. "We've tried inducements for front setbacks so we can get green space in front of building, rather than parking lots...Parking lots are ugly and grass is not so ugly."
Although he isn't thrilled with much of what chains build, Hill is reluctant to impose rigid architectural standards. "I never like the word control. I like to see, at least in Farragut, incentives for the developer to do something different," he says. For example, the Campbell Station Road Walgreen's design was the idea of the project's developer.
In Knoxville, there are some places where the public claims limited architectural standards. The most aggressive controls are along the Cumberland Avenue strip, where a review board made up of merchants and property owners reviews all building permits. Formed in the late '70s, the board is concerned with landscaping and pedestrian access, says the MPC's Ken Pruett. In the '80s the concern was that businesses provide adequate parking. But today, the concern is that there is too much parking.
As a result, the city eliminated the requirement for on-site parking along the Cumberland Avenue strip about a year and a half ago. "The parking requirement was obviously just encouraging people to create new parking lots," Whitaker says. "If they provided the parking off-site, it's encouraging them to tear down buildings in Fort Sanders."
But these controls are minimal, compared to controls that have been put in place around the country. In Saving Face, Fleming points to chains that were forced to make use of old Victorian homes. Or they were made to build structures that didn't look at all like the other shops in its chain, but matched their surroundings.
Bernhardt says there's no reason why cities can't take more control, because the franchises will want to do business there no matter what the regulations. "If a Walgreen's or whatever is coming to your neighborhood, they have already made the decision that they want to be there," he says.
October 26, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 43
© 2000 Metro Pulse