The Chicago big box saga is a tale of who gets to build where, how big, and how much wage it pays. It can be extended to include debates on store design.

While big box stores were built here before the first Wal-Mart in Chicago, the saga begins with that megastore. The City Council passed a “living wage” ordinance (also called the big box wage ordinance) that required stores with over 90,000 square feet and $1 billion in revenue to pay their employees a minimum of $10 per hour, and an additional $3 per hour in fringe benefits. The Mayor vetoed the ordinance. Wal-Mart built its store in the Austin neighborhood and paid their normal wage (in 2010 it seems to be $8.75). It won’t be until 2011 (at the earliest) that the second Wal-Mart will open in Pullman.


An urban-friendly Best Buy in the same complex as a senior citizen assisted living center.

Meanwhile, Target opens new Chicago stores in McKinley Park and West Rogers Park (on Peterson Avenue), both in 2006. Best Buy opened stores on Elston Avenue, Belmont Avenue, Clark Street, Roosevelt Road, and Michigan Avenue. Kohl’s, a discount department store, opened a store alongside Best Buy on Elston (to the tune of 130,000 square feet, on par with Wal-Mart) in 2005. Home Depot and Menards have also opened stores since the big box ordinance veto in 2006 seemingly without a hitch.

This month, Target proposed to a group of residents and the 2nd Ward Alderman, Robert Fioretti, a new store at Jackson and Aberdeen in the West Loop. Many residents were disappointed by the store design. At least one resident didn’t understand the need for a store with the South Loop store on Roosevelt so close.

How the saga can end

The prevailing wages at big box stores in Chicago should be researched. The current research about Wal-Mart and big box stores’ tax revenue contributions should be validated by additional studies. There are several universities up to this task, and mine, the University of Illinois at Chicago, has released multiple studies – here’s one about localized job creation and elimination.

With solid background information, alderman and city agencies, as well as residents, can potentially make better informed and more effective decisions about the future of large-scale retailing in Chicago.


More of this please (Home Depot hardware store in dense neighborhood)…


…And less of these.

Lastly, the City Council and Zoning and Planning departments should set design standards for this style of shopping to ensure urban friendly and transit oriented developments. Home Depot and Target should be lauded for their stores on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park (more info), and on Roosevelt Road in South Loop, respectively*. However, each has since built their typical suburban monstrosities in other neighborhoods, that neither recognize that some customers would like to arrive by car (instead by transit or bike), nor consider the environment (minimum-size parking lots make a large contribution to the city’s current problems managing stormwater runoff). Future Wal-Marts should promote sustainable design.

First and second photos by Payton Chung. Third photo by PonderInc.

*While the Target in McKinley Park (Chicago) is LEED Certified, the South Loop store probably has an annual lower carbon footprint because of all the visitors who arrive by transit and bike. The South Loop store is near a major train station and several bus routes (at least five). The McKinley store is on a highway and two bus routes.