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.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

DC, Anacostia, Skyland, and food deserts

Yesterday's Post discusses ("Without Walmart, the long wait for more groceries continues in east DC") the cancelling of two Walmart stores in Ward 7 as a continuation of those areas being under-stored with limited access to fresh foods.

The problem with this argument, and it is true that compared to higher income areas, the area has fewer options and a narrower range of the types of stores close by, the fact is that DC residents, "even" in Wards 7 and 8, are not limited to DC or their immediate neighborhoods when they choose to shop.

Supermarkets agdjacent to Wards 7 and 8
Note that most urban supermarkets plan for a "retail trade area" of a 3 mile radius, which covers an area of about 28 square miles.  This is out of sorts with advocate assertions that people should be able to buy groceries within a 3/4 mile walk from home.

In 2008, I wrote a blog piece in response to a similar article in the Washington Business Journal, written by the same journalist when he worked there.

"Food deserts are complicated places" discusses the reality that people's shopping options aren't limited to DC--for example, there are many grocery stores in the part of Prince George's County that abuts this part of DC, and there are Giant and Safeway supermarkets located within one mile of the Skyland location.

A follow up entry reprinted a Washington Post graphic from a story about the Congress Heights shopping center, showing how many supermarkets are nearby in PG County--although that graphic is 7 years old now and things have changed somewhat.

Eight options for supermarkets other than Walmart.  That being said, there are many options other than relying on Walmart to expand the array of choices available in under-stored areas that are distressed neighborhoods Anacostia.  Even if the Mayor believes that Walmart is the only choice.  From the Post article:
Days after the retailer’s announcement, officials said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D)– who described herself as “blood mad” upon hearing the news — tried a last-minute save by calling Greg Foran, president and chief executive of Walmart U.S., to “communicate frustration and the importance of these two projects” according to Brian Kenner, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

Kenner said the mayor was told a reversal was unlikely.

“His response there’s really nothing he could do,” Kenner said. “It’s not like this is a cost issue. This has to do with their larger issue nationally in particularly paring down urban markets, which they have been very specific about.”
Some are discussed in this entry, "In lower income neighborhoods, are businesses supposed to be "community organizations" first?," from 2012.

Like the points made in the piece last week on how a ground up redevelopment approach would have ultimately worked a lot better for Skyland ("Ground up commercial revitalization and the Skyland Town Center project"), the problem for cities with "options other than Walmart" or other chain stores is that they are a lot more work and more risky--not that working with chains isn't time consuming or risky also.

Admittedly, fostering retail openings in underserved areas is risky.  And many independent grocery ventures fostered by cities do fail--one did on H Street NE back in the late 1980s.  Although I argue this happens most often because poor business fundamentals were ignored for political reasons, with various reasons--stores being opened in the wrong places, being underfinanced, paying high rents, etc.--leading to failure.

One example that comes to mind is the failure of a grocery in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which was opened in a business and transit district with limited business and transit activity and few nearby residents ("Fresh Grocer supermarket opens in New Brunswick, addressing 'food desert' challenge," NJBiz, "Owing $1 Million to NBPA, New Brunswick FreshGrocer Closes After Just 18 Months in Business," New Brunswick Today).

Part of a mixed use project, it was located on the ground floor of a parking structure adjacent to the NJ Transit station in New Brunswick, which is home to Rutgers University.

Other problematic examples include Portland ("Revitalization in impoverished neighborhoods can be very difficult because different "stakeholders" have different understandings of what's at stake") and Los Angeles ("How a South L.A. supermarket proposal fell apart, after a decade of effort," Los Angeles Times).

Revitalization in distressed and emerging commercial districts is very hard.

Create a "public market."  This would be similar to the old DC Farmers Market building that focused on serving the needs of low income consumers--that building is now the upscale Union Market food hall.

A public market could also be used as a business development initiative, because it's easier for individual entrepreneurs to run sections of a market (e.g., meat, seafood, produce, dairy, deli) but not able to take on, launch and run an entire store.

To spur local economic development in low income communities, communities elsewhere are adapting the public market/market hall model as a way to spur business development and retail offerings in otherwise underserved communities.

Image of La Marqueta from Manhattan Times.

The Thai Town Marketplace in Los Angeles and the Portland Mercado are examples of such efforts.  La Marqueta in Spanish Harlem is a repositioning of an older public market with a decided focus on business incubation and serving the otherwise underserved.

There is no reason why a public market couldn't be anchored by a vendor selling "center store" nonperishable products (canned, boxed, and bagged items).  Baltimore wholesaler B. Green could be the wholesaler supporting such a venture ("Changing with the times," Progressive Grocer).  For decades, Baltimore's Lexington Market has had such a store as part of the retail mix there.

The business development opportunities make this a good model.  And business development could be furthered by setting up a commercial kitchen/incubator to support small business food production and catering organizations, and this could also support pop up restaurants both as a business development and support effort and as a way to boost  customer activity during different dayparts.

Similarly, the school system could shift a high school culinary education program (and add an adult education component) to such a facility which would provide training opportunities, could support the provision of better and more equipment for the incubator, and could support a restaurant too with the students operating it, which is another way to extend the ability to open more diverse restaurant options to otherwise emerging commercial districts.

Franchise a Sav-A-Lot.  Many years ago, the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation indicated they were looking to open a supermarket, replacing the old Anacostia Supermarket independent store.

Sav-A-Lot, a division of Supervalu, is a mix of company-owned and franchised stores.  There is at least one Sav-A-Lot store in DC, although compared to a nearby location on Chillum Road in Hyattsville, the DC location has a hyper-limited selection of fresh fruit and vegetables.

-- Sav-A-Lot franchise information

Recruit PriceRite.  PriceRite is the discount supermarket banner of the Wakefern organization, which also supports traditional supermarket stores (ShopRite and Fresh Grocer).

Probably PriceRite has been developed as a way for the organization to compete with Sav-A-Lot and other discounters (Aldi, Walmart).

The company has been expanding in the region, and has stores nearby in Prince George's County ("PriceRite makes regional push with store in Prince George's," Washington Business Journal).  Also see "Price Rite to open grocery store in Syracuse 'food desert'," Syracuse Post-Herald.

Recruit ShopRite.  While there aren't ShopRites in DC, there are some in Maryland, and one Wakefern member, Brown's, operates stores in urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Brown's has a consulting unit, UpLift Solutions, which works with supermarkets opening stores in center city locations.  The group facilitated the opening in Baltimore City of a unit by an otherwise suburban focused ShopRite affiliate ("City says it's largest supermarket to open in Howard Park," Baltimore Sun).

Create a member-owned food cooperative.  The Glut Food Cooperative in Mount Rainier, Maryland is owned by the workers, and so is a business cooperative, while the Takoma Park and Greenbelt Food Cooperatives are owned by members.  Either type qualifies for loans and business support from the National Cooperative Bank.

Philadelphia Weekly photo.

The Mariposa Food Cooperative, a member co-op in Philadelphia, was organized to mitigate "food desert" issues and has been in operation for going on six years ("Philly's Mariposa Food Co-op Focuses on Outreach Along Baltimore Avenue," Philadelphia Weekly; "Food co-ops on rise in Philly area," Philadelphia Inquirer).

But without strong support systems, food co-ops have a tough time in low income areas, since they are funded by capital from members.

For example, the Elm City Market Food Co-op was created in New Haven ("Food co-op to save New Haven's crisis?," Yale Herald), "Elm City Market Food Co-op - A Model for Downtowns") to deal with lack of supermarket options in the core of the city.

But poor decision making led to financial problems because the group agreed to large rent increases as sales rose, despite the fact that supermarkets have low profit margins (one to three percent) and in the short run, growth increases costs ("Elm City Market auctioned off," Yale Daily News).  The store faced closure, but was purchased by a private investor, and converted to a for profit enterprise.

Support the creation of an independently-owned supermarket.  Many independent grocers are affiliated with business cooperatives.  The business cooperative is owned by the members, and it supports their individual operation.  While there are many supermarket business cooperatives across the country, Wakefern is the major group operating in the Mid-Atlantic.

There is an alternative however. IGA is a supermarket business cooperative operating nationally and could support an independent operation operating East of the River, for a group not interested in working as ShopRite, but still wanted the advantages of a national brand and marketing support.  IGA affiliate stores operated in the city in various locations into the early 2000s.

-- Why IGA? marketing brochure for supermarket operators

Contact small supermarket firms already operating in the metropolitan area.  There are some small grocery companies operating in the area, focusing on ethnic communities, primarily Latinos (PanAm, Megamart, Bestway) that theoretically could be interested in opening a store in the currently under construction site on East Capitol Street that was abandoned by Walmart. A new Megamart at New Hampshire Avenue is more upscale than their nearby store on University Blvd. near Piney Branch Road.
Note that the old District Grocery Stores group of neighborhood corner store markets was a business cooperative supporting individually owned stores.  At one point there were 300 stores in the group, most serving DC, but also with locations in the suburbs.

The group had a warehouse allowing the organization to buy food more cheaply by amalgamating the orders of individual stores and provided marketing support.  In the face of changes in the city and the industry, the group dissolved in 1972. Note that the still extant Sniders Supermarket in Silver Spring started out as a DGS affiliate.

Note that technically, Yes Grocery is an independent and did open a store in Ward 7 which proved unsuccessful ("Organic Verses," Washington City Paper).  But I would argue that was because their business model was incongruent with the market demographics present in that location.

Image from the Chester City Blog.

Open a nonprofit supermarket.  In Chester, Pennsylvania, a nonprofit supermarket called Fare & Square was launched by the Philadelphia area food bank Philabundance, and has been open for more than three years ("Nation's First Non-Profit Supermarket Is Picking Up Steam,"Next City; "Q&A: Fare & Square, an oasis in a U.S. food desert," FreshFruit Portal).

Unlike the fairly grim stores that are typical of PriceRite and Sav-A-Lot and other firms focusing on low income consumers, the interiors of the Fare & Square store are attractive, and the organization has strong branding and identity systems.

I believe it would make sense for other cities to work with Philabundance and create a platform out of this store that could be opened in other locations, a kind of franchise for social entrepreneurialism in the grocery sector.

These suggestions only cover food: what about general merchandise categories?  Granted, Walmart is food+general merchandise, while the eight options discussed above only cover food.

WUSA-TV photo.

There are other discount store options too, but they are limited.  The locally-owned Discount Mart, which had already operated at Skyland is one.

Maxway operates in DC's suburbs and is owned by a company with a wide variety of discount merchandise stores active in the Southeastern United States.

The firm opened one of their bigger banners, Rose's, in Prince George's County ("Largest Roses store in the US opens in Prince George's," WUSA-TV).  Plus, there are big dollar stores.  Five Below.  Ollie's Bargain Outlet which operates as close as Baltimore.  Etc.

In other entries, I've mentioned that Kroger has a Marketplace model that adds general merchandise to grocery stores--like Walmart Supercenters but smaller.

Harris-Teeter is owned by Kroger but has no plans as of yet to open any of these kinds of combination stores.  In any case, my sense is that Kroger opens Marketplace stores as a way to ward off Walmart and other discounters from opening stores, and likely the company isn't interested in opening these kinds of combination stores in what we might call "retail deserts."

The Fred's discount store chain does not operate in Virginia or Maryland, but does operate as close as North Carolina.  The Beall's Outlet chain, operating as Burke's Outlet, does have stores in Virginia and West Virginia, but not Maryland.  The latter is focused on clothing, although they also sell home goods and electronics, while Fred's is more of a full line discounter.

Shoppers World is a general merchandise discount store based in the region also.  They have a store at the Boulevard at Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland (Prince George's County).  They could be an option too.

While the old Value City discount chain is no more, they still have the Value City Furniture company, selling furniture, but the store has suburban locations and isn't likely to be interested in a store location in DC, figuring that would merely cannibalize existing customers.

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At 7:09 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Also this:

RE: Yes! -- yeah, basically a mismatch.

"At one point there were 300 stores in the group, most serving DC, but also with locations in the suburbs. "

hard to imagine. The improved CVS/Walgreens combo is getting better on food.

At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are several Save-a-lots in PG County, including one in Oxon Hill adjacent to Aldi, and across from a Shopper's. The fruit & veg was basic but acceptable. From Alexandria City, jetting across the bridge is actually quicker than schlepping down Rt1 to Aldi in Fairfax County. Alexandria City is getting at least 2 Aldi's soon, to the consternation of some I'm sure. One is in the former site of the "petite" Giant on Monroe in Del Ray, and another in west Alexandria, former Magruder's I believe. I shop at Aldi a lot less nowadays, but in graduate school I made stock-up trips.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

holy s*** about easyfoodstore. Anyway, there are some "salvage stores" here too, that I've written about before. But it's not something to develop a shopping center around.

I was shocked at the 300 number too. I figured many dozens, not that number. A colleague's house was the site of a DGS added on to the house in Mount Rainer... But early on, people truly shopped local. And for the longest time the grocery stores were pretty small too.

2. wrt CVS, they do have more food, but I think it's priced pretty high. I don't understand why the prices can't be lower. DK about how the prices compare at Walgreens, probably comparable.

But yes, far better than 7-11 except on fountain and coffee beverages.

At 10:09 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt driving... decades ago, a grocery store was created on H St., a couple blocks from me, and after a couple years it failed. Partly it was because they offered store brand products, and Af-Am residents took umbrage, believing it implied they couldn't afford name brands. Me, I was fine with paying under $2 for Richfood brand raisin bran.

But I also realized--back then stores used paper bags--seeing people's recycling put out in bags from Shoppers Food Warehouse etc., and there are no SFWs in DC, that most people--because we eat every day--had their supermarketing options covered, many people have access to a car, etc., so they aren't limited to their immediate neighborhood for shopping, and yes, that includes Rte. 1 in Alexandria/Fairfax (I used to go the Magruders out there, not Food Lion, KMart/Builders Square--I am from the Detroit area and had residual loyalty, etc.

2. As far as Aldi goes, for produce especially I am a fan. They definitely underprice Walmart, on the featured weekly items especially.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, I think the SavALot on Chillum Road is fine. It's corporately owned. I don't go there very often. But the few times I did, I was impressed by the customer service and commented on it. The DC store must be a franchise and it shows. (Then again, my trip to the Chillum Road store was back before SuperValu had all kinds of financial problems. Who knows what's happened there in the interim.)

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous rg said...

Every alternative you outline in your post would probably be better than a Walmart for the neighborhood and the District in the long term. Sadly our Mayor and much of the Council has no imagination or creativity.

At 2:29 AM, Anonymous h st ll said...

This is a very well written and informative post. Not sure why, with all your knowledge,that you are referring to a myriad of different neighborhoods EOTR as Anacostia tho. Disappointing.

At 6:57 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

A direct and legitimate criticism... from a "trying to cut the words down" perspective, I guess I should just say EOTR.

Skyland absolutely is not Anacostia.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

UCLA student government is going to start a small grocery:

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Also this:

With the various korean grocers there may be another 75-80 in DC.

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