Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Cost of a Costco

Edit: This post produced a... vigorous twitter debate, in which a critical friend made a few points. The chief point to concede is that a Costco may well be a good use for this site, infrastructure costs notwithstanding, especially given Costco's positive employment track record and the absence of other grocery stores out at Ira Needles. Also, the factors that led to the growth of big box stores out on Erb's Road were put in place years ago and may now be immutable.

And I can't disagree with that. What brought me to write this post was not "Costco is evil!!1!" but that we are seeing the engines of sprawl in action right in front of us, along with many of the downsides that come with it. What we should be concerned about is how we aren't doing enough to check the momentum of this outward expansion. Wilmot Line is the current west side boundary for urban expansion. It will only hold if it is strong enough to withstand the pressure. Reducing the pressure is as important as strengthening the line.

With that, I return you to the post as originally written...

A lot of people are discussing the prospect of a new Costco store on the west side of Waterloo, across from the landfill.

Between 1998 and 2000, I worked for a very small software company located in a converted house that lays just within Gate 1 of the landfill. (Unsurprisingly, the company's product was designed for waste management.) At the time, when I would drive my rusty '86 Honda CRX home, I would turn out of the gate, drive east past Westhill Drive, and the edge of the city was the recently expanded KW Bilingual School at the corner of Erb and Erbsville.

The amount of change in this area is remarkable. Both Westhill Drive and Erbsville Road are disconnected remnants of their former selves, as Ira Needles Blvd. is the main west side artery. The line of houses that faced the regional landfill in mute testimony to the foolishness of their purchasers (or so we joked at the time) now sit behind a new, even closer residential subdivision. And snuggled up to the landfill property are massive commercial developments, the largest of which is the Boardwalk. This euphemistically named strip of windswept parking lot and box store at the foot of Mount Trashmore II is as large as the entire downtown core of Kitchener.

And yet, Waterloo's expansion seems hardly content to stop here, and is about to envelop the landfill. Costco sees an opportunity in our growing region. With one busy store down in Kitchener, an expansion of the chain to Waterloo makes a lot of sense in principle. As retail employers go, Costco has a history of being very good to its workers. Why wouldn't we want them to come in with another store?

But Costco's expansion plan is bringing our community's sprawl problem into focus. Three football fields' worth of farmland stands to be paved over and built on. A massive lot with over 900 parking spots will be installed, presenting new environmental challenges as development creeps ever closer to the sensitive west side moraine. And as Waterloo councilor Vieth (among others) has pointed out, this development will strain the ability of our current roads on this side of town to move traffic.

It's worth considering that a bulk goods store like Costco is not the kind of place you'd expect many people to hop on a bus to go to. Costco's business model depends, as so much of our development pattern does, on its customers providing their own transportation in the form of cars and trucks. And yet, as is also evident in so much of our development pattern, our infrastructure is being stretched and strained, and ultimately the great commercial developments of the west side (of which this Costco would be the latest) are being subsidized as we expand roads to meet the traffic demand they generate.

Even as our regional government fights private developers in court to retain the right to draw our own urban boundaries, and redirects much of our growth inward where it requires less new infrastructure, it's clear that developers want to race to the "countryside line", which on the west side is Wilmot Line (map). And that is because greenfield development is easy and profitable. Given ample space and without historical site contamination risks, and with minimal pressure to design a working neighbourhood that isn't car-bound, it's not surprising that sprawl is so often the answer to the question of how to meet the market for growth. Forcing growth upward, rather than outward, takes substantially more effort and planning.

Unfortunately, this new westerly development could become a nucleation point for the next round of suburban sprawl. But the fault here isn't Costco's. It's ours. Yes, we're investing in our cores to make them viable sites for future growth, and to make our region more sustainable and affordable. But that's only part of the equation. We also need to curb our outward expansion, and put rules in place that force new heavily-trafficked commercial developments to be located more centrally, and more accessibly. And when a business comes along that's built on selling goods cheaply in large warehouses and parking lots on the edge of town, perhaps we should be a little more thoughtful about the infrastructure costs their presence will impose upon us.

If we don't take a deliberate approach to managing our growth, then the so-called countryside line will be just a brief hurdle in Waterloo's outward expansion. The environmental costs will be substantial as we'll need to reach towards the great lakes for our water, and when the infrastructure costs come due, it'll hit us hard in the pocketbook.

How many bulk boxes of chicken wings is that worth?


  1. How many chickens in that box are from Waterloo region or surrounding communities?

  2. Nicely said!
    I also wrote a blog post, and a letter to the editor in Saturday's paper. I will be speaking at council tonight.

    1. Thanks for the response, and the link!

      Some thoughts came to mind after reading your post. One is regarding the viability of small businesses against big box stores. In that area, I often see fighting a particular expansion plan (or big boxes in general) as treating the symptom, rather than addressing the disease.

      We will continually see innovation in how goods are distributed and sold. Big warehouse store models are very successful because they allow for a lot of economy of scale, while limiting the cost of distribution. The expectation, however, is that people will travel further to these stores, that they will bring their car (and that they have a car to bring!), and that the communities will absorb the cost of servicing the properties these stores rest on, which are often on the edge of town because the land is cheap (another saving for the store.)

      And that's now. In the future, we may be looking at the erosion of retail by things like Amazon's same-day delivery, which could use edge of town warehouse delivery nodes to kill off edge of town warehouse stores. (And probably a lot of other retailers and jobs, too.)

      So, what can we do that's more than treating the symptoms? We have to change the playing field. One avenue may be a taxation model that gets us away from the systemic subsidy of low density development. Or, a growth management strategy with teeth, that allows a lot more control over how (or even whether!) rural land on the edge of town is developed.