Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

(Urban) Supermarkets and Urban Design

In honor of the entry, "Tenleytown Safeway plan shows no signs of improving," in Greater Greater Washington, I am reprinting this blog entry from February 2006. The beginning of the entry is only half relevant, as it was in response to grousing about the Giant Supermarket at the Tivoli Square, in response to activists successful campaign to get Giant to give back their illegal seized road lane in the sidewalk.
Protest at Giant

The issue really is urban-appropriate store formats, formats that leverage the value of the location on the street in a hopefully vital urban location, rather than just a typical supermarket with a hyper interior-focused design that leverages the location, but not the placemaking aspects that the location allows because of its vital urban setting.

Safeway and Giant, and frankly, all major supermarket chains, do not design their stores to focus on and leverage urban locations.

My problem such as it is with the GGW entry is that it doesn't provide much guidance to advocates to help them articulate to supermarket companies (not that they are ready to listen even today) an urban-friendly and urban-connected alternative.

At the end of this entry are a couple images comparing the Downtown Safeway to the 5th Street Hardware store a couple doors down, and the Whole Foods Market in Silver Spring.

The Giant Supermarket at Tivoli Square in Columbia Heights. July, 2005.

People are still grousing about Giant Supermarket having to give up their illegally seized "driving lane" in the middle of the sidewalk, whereas I think of this as a great and rare victory for advocates for quality public spaces. Here's some of what I wrote about this on the Columbia Heights e-list (slightly edited and augmented with a couple of additional photos).

Why do you need a driving lane for an urban grocery store? Why isn't a parking structure, built with a significant amount of city-provided funds, sufficient?

This is a city, not a suburb, and architecture and design should place people, not cars, first.

I highly suggest you request a copy (it should still be free) of the book Urban Design Compendium. Note that it was originally published by English Partnerships, which has been merged into a UK government agency, the UK Dept. of Home and Communities Agency--so I don't know if it is still free.

As a city resident, it's incumbent on you to learn something about urban design if you are going to weigh in on urban design and land use issues in an informed and deliberative fashion.
Fox and Obel Supermarket, Chicago
The Fox and Obel Supermarket, Chicago -- doesn't need a driving lane and they do just fine. (They have access to a parking lot, just like the Giant at the Tivoli has access to a parking structure physically connected to their building.)

Harvest Urban Market
Neither does the Harvest Urban Market in San Francisco. (San Francisco Chronicle photo.)

Shaw Supermarket at Prudential Center
Nor the Shaw Supermarket at Prudential in Boston.

I don't think that Columbia Heights is some magical exception to how cities work or how urban design is supposed to function and connect.

Ironically, just the other day I wrote a blog entry about "suburban creep" of odd and/or inappropriate design, architecture, or use into the urban context. Your statement is a perfect example of being enveloped in a suburban-centric planning and land use paradigm, and speaks volumes about "suburban creep."

From the second email--

Re: "Henock, before you say "Good Job to all that demanded this change" , have you really looked at what they've done? We're left with a huge wide BARREN sidewalk, now what? -- Geniuses that wanted this, do you have any ideas?"

Uh, I guess I'm a "jean-yuss."
Outside Andronicos Supermarket in Walnut Creek, California
Andronico's Supermarket, Walnut Creek, California. (I didn't use the Whole Foods picture because I don't really like the style of the furniture they use.) At at least one Andronico's store, they let a farmers market operate in the store parking lot on Saturdays, because they feel that while both the farmers market and the store sell produce, overall the supermarket will get more customers because of spillover from the farmers market.

Eddie's Market, Charles Village, Baltimore
Eddies Market, Charles Village, Baltimore.

Whole Foods Austin, Playscape, outdoor patio, second floor
Whole Foods Patio and Playscape, Austin, Texas, under construction. (Austin American-Statesman photo.)

Espresso Window, Nordstrom Dept. Store, Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, Oregon
I mean, even Nordstrom's understands that since their downtown store abuts the most active public space in Portland, Oregon, that it makes sense to open up to the street somehow, and sell people stuff, in this case, espresso. (Across from Pioneer Courthouse Square.)

The problem really is that Giant Supermarket doesn't appear to be capable of operating outside of their suburban paradigm.

This isn't exclusive to Giant. I think that Safeway has the same problem. Even though they tout their Downtown Portland Oregon store as an urban model, and true, it has glass and activities on the facades, it doesn't leverage to or connect to the streetscape at all, other than having an entry way that people walk through.

Safeway, Downtown Portland, Oregon.

They have a Starbucks, but it doesn't open to the street, you have to go inside. They sell flowers on the perimeter of their store, but you have to go inside. They prepare food along one streetside, but the staff and the facility is placed in such a way that they have their backs to the street, etc.

Potential patio, wasted, at the Safeway in Downtown Portland, Oregon. Contrast that to Nordstrom's Department Store just a few blocks away.

If I had access to that much patio space, I could make a fortune off it.
Exterior Zupan's Market, W. Burnside Avenue, Portland
Zupan's in Portland sells flowers outside their store.

Whole Foods Austin, Pizza Station
For example, while Whole Foods has their pizza station in Austin, Texas inside the store, on a street that is highly pedestrianized in an urban setting like the Tivoli Square Giant, I'd put it on the street. (Austin American-Statesman photo.)

I'd call up Giant's new consumer affairs person, and set up a meeting.... Although this might require someone with the heft of Odonna Matthews able to talk with "the guys." (See The Face of Giant's Comeback Strategy from the Post about Giant/Stop and Shop's new VP for Consumer Affairs.)

Then the comment was made that I was proposing an urban disneyland. So of course I responded:

Urban "Disney" started in Europe, oh, in the 1500s? Connecting to and benefiting from the street started long before Disneyland was built in the 1950s. Look up the history of how Lloyd's of London was created, out of guys meeting at a coffee shop.

In the U.S., retail developed around food markets, and food markets started outside and then indoor facilities (public markets) were constructed. In many cities, retail districts, including department stores, developed around the market area. While not true of DC, this was true of Baltimore and the Lexington Market.

If you really need to be convinced of this, go check out Philadelphia's Italian Market, or walk through various neighborhood commercial districts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. (I don't know Staten Island, so I can't comment on it.)

Since capitalism is all about the commodification of authenticity, I'm surprised that you're so resistant. Me, I just want to see businesses connect to the street, rather than a f*u* to the street. And I am hardly against capitalism (although I am against the commodification of "use value"). If I were, I wouldn't be opening a restaurant-gourmet to go place with horrors (hopefully)--a patio and some food production in one of the windows, in order to build interest and activate the street.
Italian Market, Philadelphia
Flickr photo of Philadelphia's Italian Market by Kagogo.

Grocery store, Rego Park, 63rd Drive
63rd Avenue in Queens offers more active streetscape-oriented shopping than most any street in DC. And it's merely a neighborhood commercial district, granted, in an area with a lot of population, and ethnicities (especially Jewish immigrants from the old SSRs).

So the response to this email was that the Lloyd's coffee shop people spent their time figuring out how to finance slavery. I didn't bother responding to that one. And another person made a point that the Columbia Heights Public Realm Plan needs to be focused upon and implemented, but cautioned that creating a patio at the Giant, given current conditions, could be problematic.

I wrote "Good uses can crowd out bad. If that area functioned more like a patio, you would be amazed at the transformation. You don't move forward by cowering."
Think of the patio area by the Cosi-theaters at Dupont Circle South. (Image from Meetup.) When that place first opened, Dupont Circle was relatively grim, although there were a couple restaurant patios in the vicinity. Cosi helped transform Dupont Circle (especially when they opened a second location north of the Circle in a space that had been languishing for more than 10 years) into a more vibrant place to go to, to hang out, to see a movie (sadly the adjacent movie theaters closed), etc.

Our limited imaginations don't help us make the most of our city.
Note that while it is totally great that the Downtown Safeway located in a prominent location at 5th and K Streets NW in the City Vista building (although I wish that more office workers knew about the location), it too fails to leverage its key urban setting. Sadly, I raised these issues with the company (probably in 2005) before the location was built, at a special presentation that included members of the ANC6C zoning committee, where the designs were presented.

It's funny that the City Vista Safeway fails to leverage its urban location and streetfront access:
Safeway and apartment building at 5th and L Streets NW, Washington DC
while the hardware store a couple doors down does understand the primacy and value of streetfront access very well.
5th Street Hardware, Washington, DC

Whole Foods Supermarkets tend to understand this better than the other chains. Even if they don't get it perfectly right, i.e., their cafes and coffee shops should also have separate entrances on the street. Typically they do not.
Promoting pineapples outside the Whole Foods Supermarket, Silver Spring
Then again, their prices are much higher than Safeway and Giant and comparable traditional supermarket chains. These images are from the Silver Spring store. And while I don't have a photo, their store in Silver Spring is selling Christmas trees outside too. (I don't know if they are doing the same at in-city locations such as at 14th and P Streets NW. They could sell Christmas trees in the parking garage...)
Al fresco at the Whole Foods Supermarket, Silver Spring, Maryland

To get the right urban grocery store format, a firm other than a major supermarket company is going to have to do so at first. (Even some of the small ones aren't as expansive thinking as you might wish. Over the years, I've tried to get Yes Market to consider some of these issues, such as prepared food...) Then the company will be seen as a pathbreaker and maybe the big chains will begin to copy it. Nobody rises in the chain supermarket world pushing a massively different paradigm.

Although, in the last year, Safeway has opened two urban stores (one 15,000 s.f., the other 23,000 s.f.), focused primarily on providing prepared foods. Although this is more a response to the Fresh & Easy Tesco format being introduced out west, rather than a specific move for an urban-appropriate format. See "Safeway's New Urban Footprint" from Chain Store Age and "Grocery stores downsize to better fit local needs" from the Los Angeles Times.

Now if they could only figure out the urban design and streetscape piece. They have begun to figure out they can be successful in urban locations...

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