A somewhat large box in a small medieval town

IMG_2695Can a box grocery – about 12,000 square feet – and its accompanying 50 car flat parking lot nestle into the heart of a 1,000 year old town?  Well, if you look at the picture above, the answer may appear to be, “yes.”  This is the Co-operative in Totnes.   The front door addresses the little alley that snakes back from the High Street, not the parking lot.   The scale seems right, the texture doesn’t jar the other buildings.  The doors are inviting without being overwhelming.

But the view below shows that, well, maybe not so much.

IMG_2694The blank wall says it all.  Whatever life there could have been with windows, perhaps outdoor display and sales, tables perhaps, doesn’t exist.

It doesn’t get any better with the parking lot either. IMG_2697This is a good store.  It is highly walkable, even if it does have a large parking lot.  (on the plus side, this parking lot can be used by anyone, not just shoppers at the Co-operative; it is a pay lot.) It offers a broad range of products, nearly as much as at the true big box located by itself well outside the central district.

But a one story floor plate of this size and with a large parking lot just doesn’t fit the scale of the surrounding area.  In this area, while each building connects with its neighbor, the largest floor plate is something like 1,000 sq feet over no more than four stories, and most are three.  There are no other surface parking lots.   On the plus side, at least it is tucked off the High Street, and not directly jarring the historic streetscape.

So this presents a conundrum:  permit an out of scale building into the historic center, but gain walkability and a shared use parking lot, or keep it out completely, and let it go where land is flatter, larger, and there is no significant architectural context to disturb.  I’m inclined to choose the former.  To me, the benefits of increasing synergy for the rest of the core outweigh the urban design drawbacks.   But it would have to meet the criteria that this does:  architecturally low profile, connected to the street yet hidden itself, parking even more so, outdoor display and windows facing the town side.  How many chain stores in the U.S. would ever agree to those conditions?

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