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Is This What an Urban 'Big Box Store' Should Look Like?

Target's new Los Angeles space aims for urban chic. Do they miss the mark?

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Courtesy of Target

Ever since Target hired Michael Graves as its teakettle mastermind 13 years ago, the company has advertised itself not only as a champion of good design, but as a great democratizer ("democracy" being, of course, a shopping term denoting the right to queue up around the block for a chance to lay hands on the latest collections from Missoni or Jason Wu). In all that time, Target stores themselves have adhered to strict big-box constructionism that basically positions them as a red-splashed Walmart, only with a giant bulls-eye that reminds you where to point your refrigerator-size shopping cart.

But, over the summer Target began rolling out new concept stores, dubbed CityTarget, in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle (good candidates for the A+ “Retail” Award, perhaps?). The latest launch is under way now in San Francisco’s South of Market district, where the city’s first Target officially opens for business Sunday, after a soft launch on Wednesday. This week also marks the opening of LA’s second CityTarget. This store anchors a newly refurbished Jon Jerde–designed outdoor shopping center downtown. The $40 million renovation includes 100,000 square feet of space for CityTarget on the ground level of Jerde’s fabulously arced triple-decker plaza-mall.

A rendering of LA’s new downtown CityTarget, which opened Wednesday at the refurbished FIGat7th mall. Image courtesy of dbox
A rendering of the renovated Metreon complex in San Francisco, with one of Target’s new urban concept stores, CityTarget, occupying the second floor. Image courtesy of Metreon

The idea behind the CityTarget, as many a press release has trumpeted, is to capture the loyalties of fickle urban shoppers and to cater to their pied-à-terre-size needs with a sympathetically smaller footprint (SF’s store is 70,000 square feet, just over half the chain’s average 135,000) and an equally inflated design consciousness. But after 50 years as a dyed-in-the-lino red behemoth, can CityTarget really turn around the prosaic store design of its predecessors?

The San Francisco CityTarget completes a two-year, $30 million renovation of the Metreon, a metallic box of an entertainment complex erected by Sony in the 1990s. The entire building got a makeover, with an expanded food court facing Yerba Buena Gardens, a remodeled AMC cinemaplex, and the CityTarget, which occupies the entire second floor. At street level the store has a 34-foot-tall red burst of an entrance that doubles as an passageway into a shiny new Starbucks. Of course, any sparkly rendering (like the one up top) can look like it belongs in Dubai. So how did Target reinterpret its usual box for this urban setting?

Photo courtesy Target

A: By making a smaller box. In both California stores, Target seems to be fighting the very urbanist impulses it’s trying to nurture. As John King pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new Metreon store tries to compensate for its diminished size by using every last inch of space for retailing: rather than advertise itself to passersby with lots of windows and views framing the activity upstairs, Target has mostly sealed itself up behind solid walls.

CityTarget San Francisco relies on SF merch for its sense of place, bolstered by a high dose of red, lest you begin to wonder how you stumbled into an airport this late at night. Photo courtesy Target
Los Angeles’s first CityTarget opened in July in a historic 1951 concrete and stone former department store. Photo: Misha Bruk/courtesy of Target

Los Angeles’s first CityTarget does a better job of melding with the streetscape. Designed by MBH Architects, who have been working on traditional Target stores for 20 years, the original LA location occupies a historic 1951 concrete and stone department store in the Westwood neighborhood bordering UCLA. Under the close watch of preservationists, this CityTarget toned down its exterior signage to avoid disrupting the building’s stone facade. And it has lots more storefront glass, allowing passersby to peek in and size up throw blankets, husband pillows, and all the other makings of next year’s Craigslist offerings. So Westwood does beat San Francisco on street connection—though "street" is kind of a generous term when your neighbors are other big boxes like Trader Joe’s and Best Buy. Still, they have benches!

Photo: Misha Bruk/courtesy of Target

Inside, the LA store fares about as well as San Francisco’s. Target retained the department store’s original concrete columns (a necessity of both preservation and logic) and made them brand compatible with putty-colored paint. The rest is…Target: a mix of vinyl flooring and carpeting delineates clothing vs. grocery areas, and the fluorescent-lit Starbucks is kiosk-size instead of a full café.

Photo: Misha Bruk/courtesy of Target

So far, the CityTarget concept is more Target Lite than a truly fresh direction for the brand. Then again, for a company that’s wisely looking to cities for future growth, does it really matter? Once our purchases of unscented lotion and large, diaper-compatible purses are logged in their sophisticated tracking system, our coupon mailers for decaf coffee and virgin mudslide mix will be in the mail and that will be it.

Still, it would be nice to see a real effort at a concept store by Target. With their Starbucks connection, perhaps they could engage the design advice of the coffee seller’s architect in residence, Arthur Rubinfeld? A 500-square-foot LEED-certified Target-let would certainly be a sight to behold.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, this post initially credited the wrong author. Molly Cotter did not write this story. Lamar Anderson wrote this story.

Los Angeles’s first CityTarget opened in July in a historic 1951 concrete and stone former department store. Photo: Misha Bruk/courtesy of Target

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, ARTnews, the Hairpin, and Salon.