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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Another ahead of the curve moment: Trader Joe's to open in DC's Union Market district

According to WTOP ("DC's next Trader Joe's coming to Union Market"), the Trader Joe's food store group is opening a store at 4th Street and Florida Avenue NE, in the Union Market district near the NoMA Metrorail station.

In testimony I gave/submitted to the DC Zoning Commission concerning a project in what is now again called the Union Market District, a wholesale and retail food district in Northeast Washington, DC, I laid out a framework for a retail plan and public space improvements, including an analysis of gaps in the retail offer and suggestions on how to fill those gaps, including recruiting particular store marques, including Trader Joe's.

-- "Retail planning and Florida Market"

Although at that time I figured to get Trader Joe's an incentive payment would have to be proffered, as I hadn't foreseen the speed at which the area is adding population, as well as the resurgence of the market district after the repositioning of the Farmer's Market building after a fire which pushed out most of the old tenants, who focused on satisfying the needs of low income consumers, in favor of the creation of a food hall with restaurants and vendors selling artisinal and higher priced goods.

Interestingly, despite the company's reputation as a low price provider, a survey of supermarket pricing by Washington Consumer Checkbook ("How Do Trader Joe's and Aldi's Prices Compare to Supermarkets'?") found when weighted for package size, prices at Trader Joe's are comparable to the area's major supermarket chains, Safeway and Giant (although recently Safeway's prices seem to have taken a significant upward jump), although produce prices average about 10% lower, according to the survey.  (Also see "Which Supermarkets are best for price and quality").
Union Market Sign

The Union Market area is quickly moving away from its somewhat dingy and disinvested state.

For the longest time, that part of Northeast had access to one grocery store, the Safeway at Hechinger Mall.

Now they have additional access to Harris-Teeter and Giant, with a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's coming, not to mention an upscale food hall, all within walking distance, and Walmart (ugh) and MOM's Organic Supermarket within an easy bike or car trip, and the Walmart is easily accessible by transit.

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At 1:01 PM, Blogger mattxmal said...

Hi Richard,

How do you feel about the high-speed transformation of the Union Market district, given your long involvement there? (I still have your map of which vendors to go to!)

It's great to see the district growing more visitors and soon residents but at the same time I'm assuming the wholesalers will be pushed out, and it will stop being a unique neighborhood.

Earlier this fall I was sitting in the beer garden there, and enjoying the sunset reflected off the windows of the derelict warehouses. I could admire the view because of the beer garden, which also meant that it would soon disappear.

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

This is a good question. I don't like the upscaling so much because it comes at the expense of the wholesaler-retailers that aren't artisinal and bourgeois.

But it is great to see the spaces increasingly activated and the streams of people that are visiting the district, at least to Union Market, Litteris, and that Italian restaurant (which I haven't checked out).

E.g., I go to V-9, the Thai distributer, to buy various Asian items for half the price/or at least way cheaper that they are sold at a traditional supermarket (like fish sauce, or 3 liter sized reduced sodium soy sauce). I can't imagine that distributer will be there long term and as you likely know PG County is actively recruiting those businesses, knowing that they can offer cheaper facilities and lower property taxes.

I think we'll lose out as those businesses slowly relocate.

2. In my testimony cited here (and in testimonies dating to 2005), I mentioned the issue of mixing residents in the district as seeding problems because of conflicting outcomes (doing business with big trucks, vs. living there), the same kinds of issues experienced in NYC's Meatpacking District when food businesses were still cheek and jowl with redeveloping residential properties.

With the announcement of a second residential building soon to break ground, plus the nearby Central Armature project, the change will be accelerated.

3. The reality though we didn't realize it at the time is that the opening of the NoMA Metrorail station in 2004 meant that long term (10-20 years) the area was going to be completely changed, because of transit access but also because commercially zoned land is so much easier to change than existing residentially owned land.

It obviously is much more profitably used (the definition of "highest and best use") as dense residential and commercial buildings as opposed to low dense warehouses.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are fortunate in that they have enough land and not so much demand for it that retail-wholesale food districts like the Italian Market and the Strip District respectively can still exist, even as more areas around them attract new mixed use residential developments.

(In 2005 when the Public Markets conference was here, one person from PGH looked at the Florida Market district and said 'you need to come to Pittsburgh and check out the Strip District,' and it turns out she was absolutely right, it's better, although weak on Asian, but I like both.)

ANyway, the changes would have been faster had not the commercial property crash occurred in 2008. But it's since picked back up.

It's unfortunate that the city has such a small base of industrially zoned land (another issue which I have written about many times) that these merchants couldn't have been relocated as a group, not unlike how NYC has done this in a couple places, like with the Fulton Fish Market, how the Baltimore food businesses moved to Jessup en masse, etc., but still within the city.

But elsewhere in the city, such as around the Rhode Island Metro, or what Douglas Development is doing in Ivy City, these properties are being remade over for residential and traditional retail use.

In the 2009 comp. plan amendment cycle, pushed the city to tighten the zoning of the industrial land use classes to reduce the ability of nonindustrial uses like schools and churches to locate there, but they said it wasn't necessary. Then in a 2014 plan, they said "we should look at this, do some zoning analysis."

I was pissed. I said it's long past the time for a study. Action is needed, now, not later. Of course, they still haven't done anything.

What's the point of having a long range planning unit if you're not assessing long range trends, evaluating the consequences, and taking necessary actions?

Still, the planner part of me understands the change even if the historic preservation/cultural heritage part of me would prefer the preservation of the market district more along its current lines.


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