Why Borders is Bad for Downtown Davis

The Impact of a Borders on a Small Downtown Business District

Despite its questionable business ethics and terribly destructive track record, Borders is not my biggest worry. I’m more concerned about the threat to the character and health of Davis’s unique downtown.

The strain on city coffers these days is obvious. Is it worth it, though, to risk sacrificing existing independent businesses and change—maybe forever—the character of Davis’s quaint central business district in order to score tax revenue from a book megastore? In its hunger for sales tax income, the City of Davis has given a developer carte blanche to build any size or type of retail he pleases at the very edge of our downtown.

This is a glaring instance of a money-strapped city administration steamrollering over the wishes of Davis residents in order to expand the tax base. The city’s own economic surveys show that Davis residents feel they have enough bookstores in town, and would prefer other types of retail, such as apparel.

By design or by ineptitude—I’m still not sure which—Davis city administrators are applying outdated 1970’s zoning standards to a radically changed 1990’s marketplace of predatory warehouse superstores and centralized shopping. The administration and council weakly claim it was all a mistake, that they were only using the same zoning as for the rest of the downtown. Their steadfast refusal to make the zoning appropriate for this era hints again at their zealous desire for tax revenue. Land developers are all but stumbling over each other in their frenzied efforts to accommodate them.

As the result, Davis has shifted suddenly from popular democracy to corporate democracy. The interests with the most power and money are having the ultimate say about the future of downtown Davis and the quality of life for its residents. All the while, the City Council, UC-D and the main Davis newspaper wave their gauzy flags of “free market enterprise,” forgetting that this country has never permitted a free economic hand in the spread of destructive, monopolistic corporations.

The downtown business districts of small cities are delicate economic environments. All you have to do is look at the hundreds of towns that have been devastated over the last few years by superstores, even those built miles away. Planting a 40,000 square foot book superstore and mall at the very perimeter of Davis’s small, unique downtown is just asking to destabilize our existing economic balance. The Borders development is ill-matched with and grotesquely out of scale for downtown Davis.

The City, the developer and UC-D are spreading stardust about what a wonderful asset this mall will be for the downtown. Because of its tight location, its muscular financial backing, and top-heavy size, it is a cruel gift. It will compete with Davis’s downtown for customer foot traffic. It will create major ingress and egress headaches. It will pressure downtown rents upward, further squeezing out small, independent and unique businesses (witness downtown Santa Cruz, Palo Alto and Santa Monica in recent years). It will change forever the quaint, small-town character for which Davis is known.

Anyone in the book trade knows the devastation to independent bookstores being caused by oligopolistic book superstores like Borders. Borders’ success virtually relies on crippling its competition. It does so behind pretenses of public concern and service. Borders is in the primary business of building stores to demonstrate growth to stockholders. To most of us in the book trade, books represent ideas, creativity and even nobility. To Borders, they simply represent “product.”

I’m no fan of Borders Books, or other predatory book superstores. I don’t like the ugly image they give to American business. I like even less the Davis government’s official willingness to sacrifice existing independent businesses and the town’s unique downtown character for a shot at tax money from outside book megastores The City of Davis has traded in its anti-big business reputation for one of being hostile to small business—and its residents.

Mark Nemmers
Bogey’s Books
March 1997

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