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Supermarkets as neighborhood centers

Can Americans really abandon grocery stores surrounded by acres of asphalt? Or are urban planners overly optimistic in their vision for more walkable cities?
American shoppers love their cars

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Supermarkets surrounded by acres of asphalt. Push-wagons heavily loaded with groceries wheeled out, the haul stashed in car trunks. Always a drive — often several miles — to get food.

We perfected the buy-and-drive model from the post-World War II expansion onward. But is it necessarily the future?

No, asserts my Seattle friend and urban design planner, Mark Hinshaw. He sees a dramatically transformed role for supermarkets. They’ll actually become the anchors of new and walkable neighborhoods, he predicts in a Planning magazine article co-authored with markets analyst Brian Vanneman.

Why the shift? Americans’ high personal consumption levels were starting to wind down even before the Great Recession. Households have shrunk in size and the population is aging, with more taste for close-by shops and facilities. Many young people are eschewing the scattered suburban pattern in favor of denser urban living. Buying a house on the urban fringe, once seen as a ticket to wealth-building, now looks to be a big risk. Walking for health and weight loss has begun, for many Americans, to outshine the sedentary lifestyle of using an auto for every conceivable errand. And many people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

But are those shifts big enough to let neighborhood-based supermarkets compete with and maybe outpace the drive-only suburban locations? You’ll wonder, as I did.

But Hinshaw’s predictive track record is impressive. He was the first person to tell me, precisely 25 years ago, that post-World War II suburbs such as Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle, could become true urban places on their own. I had fun writing the story — the prospect of Bellevue, the place they used to call “car city,” all strip commercial, no sidewalks and “potentially terminal boredom,” turning itself into a Class A center with high-rise buildings, plazas, parks, cafes.

And in fact the transformation has occurred, not just in Bellevue but in revamped old suburban sites around major cities coast to coast.

Today, Hinshaw asserts, grocery stores are re-emerging “as one of the cornerstones of great places to live.” Many are becoming social spaces, with espresso bars and welcoming seating. “People hang out, read the paper or a book, and meet friends — even when buying groceries isn’t part of the trip.”

In America’s reviving center cities, residents clamor for new grocery stores. We’re about to get one in my neighborhood in Southwest Washington, D.C., with a long-missed coffee shop, and everyone is elated. There was celebration in downtown Houston last year when years of planning culminated in the opening of Byrd’s Market & Cafe.

Foodwise, the new market wave offers amenities residents crave: ultra-fresh vegetables and fruits, organic choices, varieties of fresh fish, specialty breads, spices and bottled spirits.

Will lack of parking crimp the growth of city and neighborhood markets? No, argues Hinshaw. A growing number of new markets are offering just a few dozen parking slots, some none at all. The new “niche” is people who carry two bags of groceries out by hand every few days, rather than transporting a dozen or more bags by car twice a month. Buying more frequently also means bringing home the freshest available foods.

The environs do make a difference. A market with an attractive public space outside — some kind of public square — will have an edge. The planners’ “rule of thumb” that people will only walk a quarter-mile isn’t true, Hinshaw contends. Make the walk interesting — no blank walls, no parking lots, but rather a mix of parks and gardens and public space, and interesting stores to glance in — and folks will walk further. Especially for food.

That’s why Hinshaw sees supermarkets as the anchors of “main street”-centered neighborhoods with dimensions of some four to five blocks. A market needs a surrounding population of 8,000 to 10,000 people, or about 4,000 houses, to succeed. The same population base can sustain another 50,000 to 80,000 square feet of shops and services.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 19, 4:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Sounds like my Whole Foods at 64th & Roosevelt. Or perhaps the U-Village QFC. Now, if they could get this going in places with lower price points,...

Posted Mon, Apr 19, 7:14 p.m. Inappropriate

We like the Seward Park PCC. It serves a large neighborhood which caters nicely to walking and is on the 39 bus line.

Posted Mon, Apr 19, 8:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Or Albersons at 130th and Aurora Ave. North, the hookers think it's walkable.

Enjoy your bubble.

Mr Baker

Posted Mon, Apr 19, 8:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Urban planners are overly optimistic in their vision for more walkable cities!

But they should try to make this work. I personally like the vision, as would many others.

I recommend getting the retail grocery industry involved.

http://supermarketnews.com/ for example.

jniles

Posted Mon, Apr 19, 9:47 p.m. Inappropriate

He's describing my life. We haven't driven to a supermarket in years, except for using a Zipcar to stock up for the rare big party, and we're considering Amazon Fresh for next time since we see the vans. When we lived in the U-District we did most of our produce shopping at the all-year weekly farmer's market, which is at the University Heights neighborhood center (and close to the branch library). Now in SLU it's pretty much Whole Foods all the time, until the summer Cascade Farmer's Market. We'll head up to Madison Market on Capitol Hill occasionally too. All within walking distance, and mostly interesting walks. It's sad that some great urban supermarket locations like Roosevelt QFC and Safeway have such anti-urban design that makes it a chore just to get to the front door.

I have to admit 8000-10000 people in a 5-block radius is a lot, pretty much only the denser urban villages in Seattle. I'd like to see sensible neighborhood-based shopping all over the region, but if it takes that level of density it will be a long time coming.

joshuadf

Posted Wed, Apr 21, 1:04 p.m. Inappropriate

The immediate neighbor don't have to support the store themselves. Aside from the IGA at 3rd & Pike (always busy), these stores (locally) have garages.

It's a great trend for neighborhood business districts. Knitting them back together while bringing more people.

mhays

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