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Monday, November 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Fog
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Hilldale Target not a welcome addition to Madison
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The Target business model simply can't help Madison grow in the same way as a locally run clothing shop, grocery, or toy store.
The Target business model simply can't help Madison grow in the same way as a locally run clothing shop, grocery, or toy store.

During my last haircut, I learned from a celebrity magazine that both Katie Holmes and Heidi Klum dress their kids in clothes from Target. I get that. You can't dress your toddler in couture all the time.

Besides, Target has spent the last decade or so branding itself as a fashion-forward big-box superstore. Madison Avenue maternity maven Liz Lange, domestic goods designer Michael Graves, and fashion personality Isaac Mizrahi have all helped define Target's famous cheap chic brand. Even Michelle Obama's fave designers -- Isabel and Ruben Toledo -- are planning to do a beach wear line for the new Target in Harlem.

But it's a safe bet that Heidi and Katie don't actually live near a Target store. I don't want a Target in my neighborhood either. But I'm about to get one anyway, on University Avenue, adjacent to Hilldale, just three miles from downtown Madison.

I have three reasons for not liking the new store, set to open in early March. One is that Target will inevitably bring more traffic and congestion to an area surrounded -- closely, and on all sides -- by residential neighborhoods.

In 2009, Madison's director of planning and development, Mark Olinger, was quoted as saying that Target would be served by transit and walking. Really? Has Olinger ever set foot in a Target? Does anyone believe that people go to Target and fill up their enormous carts with toys, storage bins, and booster seats because they're planning to hop on a bus, or even more impossibly, stroll home? Of course not.

Olinger also reportedly called the store "good urban infill." I guess he meant that Target is preferable to a hole in the ground -- a perspective I've heard repeated by my neighbors. But from my perspective, the city of Madison let a Chicago developer, Joseph Freed and Associates, build a Target in the middle of Madison because the Target Corp. had the money to build it.

My second reason for not liking it is the local economy. Tim Metcalfe, president of Metcalfe's Sentry in Hilldale, kindly wrote me to say he's expecting Target to increase traffic to his store and other, locally operated retailers. I'm not sure he should be so sanguine. Target may well undercut some of the retail business at Hilldale.

And, on a macro scale, people who study big-box stores say they encourage a "from away, go away" retail model. Products come from far away, and profits leave. Some people will get jobs here, and some customers will save money. But ultimately, there is less accountability, local control and reinvestment.

The Target business model simply can't help Madison grow in the same way as a locally run clothing shop, grocery, or toy store. Keep the Targets at the city limits, and give the moms and pops a fighting chance.

Which brings me to my third reason: the preservation of Madison's unique, local character. Some people will read this as a NIMBY argument, as if I just want mass-market retailers to set up shop near someone else. In fact, I wish all superstores were zoned far away from residential communities.

But putting a Target in the middle of a densely populated residential market doesn't make it substantially easier for lower income people to shop there. It only makes it substantially easier for the Target Corporation to sell to all of us.

Ultimately, I think everyone should have the right to say they don't want their neighborhood overrun by the same retail superstores that increasingly define every suburb in America. Maybe some people are truly happy to look at the giant, glowing red Target symbol from the window of their living room. But I'd rather see all of us insist on the encouragement of a more diverse, locally operated retail market, for everyone's benefit.

Similar arguments are being made against Target in Kailua, Hawaii and San Rafael, California. A couple of years ago, Maine passed the Informed Growth Act, which requires cities and towns to assess the impact of large-scale retail development on local jobs, businesses and municipal finances. In the legislative debate leading up to the vote, one of the Republican senators who voted for it reportedly said the bill would give local communities a tool to protect "the Maine way of life."

I'm told Madison has a big-box ordinance which is supposed to force consideration of things like building size and neighborhood character. I don't know whether this particular store received enough consideration. But going forward, I'd like to see a louder debate before anyone decides to put a big-box retail superstore so close to downtown Madison.

Erin Elizabeth Clune is a Madison-based writer, blogger, and public radio producer and contributor.

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