Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is It To Be Or Not To Be --- An Urban Market?

Kroger has announced plans to not just renovate the Euclid Ave store, but to replace it with a larger, ”urban lifestyle market”. That was the phrase that Danny Lethco, a real estate manager for Kroger, used repeatedly during a gathering with neighborhood residents and interested parties. Maybe we just need to look at just what is an “urban market”

Though not exactly super markets, these smallish grocery stores strive to provide our cities with fresh food, meat and cooking staples within reasonable walking distance. Corner stores like these became passe after super stores like Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Kroger and Meijer came to suburbia. However there’s been a new push toward walkability and sustainable growth within our cities and we again need accessible food in our urban areas.

This Euclid Ave. store has been called a "university store" and dubbed the "disco" Kroger by Ace magazine since it serves a large number of eclectic students in the overnight hours, but it also serves as an oasis in the food desert of the less well off of the 40508 and 40502 zipcodes. Many of them are faced with carrying their groceries on long public transit rides, buying a car or relying on convenience stores to purchase their necessities. Will they be better served by making this an urban store?

The confined space of a site for an urban style store will demand the right balance of urban design and will present some challenges. These grocery stores have to use a fraction of the space that super stores have, prioritize the goods they will provide and consider parking in an area unable to accommodate a super-parking-lot. With these challenges in mind, many other cities and entrepreneurs have taken the risk and opened such grocery stores. It may be helpful to examine how they did it.

First, I looked at the basic history of the seemingly ever increasing size of suburban grocery stores. After the sprawl explosion of the 1950s and ‘60s, supermarket chains have focused primarily on the suburbs. The business model involved rolling out the same store with parking in front, again and again. When supermarkets did build in cities, they plunked down the same suburban box whenever possible. This approach works as long as new growth is taking place primarily in the suburbs and the cities languish.

Kroger, in its history, is not a stranger to the Chevy Chase area and many will remember when it occupied the space where Shoppers Village Liquor through Josie’s sets today. Well, they even pre-date that if what some of the old-timers told me is true when I was growing up. I have been told that the now gone Ben Franklin five and dime, which stood approximately where the drive entry is to the Ashland Plaza, was built as a Kroger before they moved around the corner.

Kroger also shared the Aylesford/Ashland Park/Chevy Chase shoppers up until the late “60s with the Parkes Bestway (High St where Great Clips is now) and the Colonial Albers (on the Kroger current site) stores and a Minit Mart (now Sew Fine). I almost forgot the small corner grocery where Architectural Kitchens & Bath now occupies. Most all of them had good walk-up traffic until pantry and refrigerator sizes grew, working mothers and time schedules dictated a large weekly shopping trip rather than daily checks of what was fresh.

How others have succeeded

When looking at how others have succeeded, I turned to the Urban Land Institute and took information from their 2011 Fall Meeting's session on “Developing Walkable Urban Groceries in Mixed-Use Environments”.

Chevy Chase is very definitely a walkable, mixed use area, therefore I believe that their recommendations should apply. Chevy Chase is also urban, not quite urban core but firmly, in the minds of most, a downtown area and ripe for infill or redevelopment. Kroger is choosing the redevelopment path.

Parking is absolutely necessary. Nearly all urban-format grocery stores need parking, even in transit rich neighborhoods, and it must be separated from residential parking. Often, grocers require five spaces per 1,000 square feet (93 sq m) of store. In the substantially denser urban locations where significant percentages of customers walk, sufficient parking is still required, although the allotment can be as low as two or three spaces per 1,000 square feet. With the credits allowed for bike racks and the transit stop, I believe that Kroger should have this covered.

Pedestrian entrance. With a split between customers arriving on foot or by car, a key for the design of the store is to get one entrance to face the parking lot and the other to be an attractive pedestrian entrance off the street. A store’s pedestrian entrance is critical in an urban area. It requires a welcoming access point from the sidewalk.. Grocers don’t necessarily want too much exposure and light, as natural sunlight and windows can negatively affect HVAC systems and refrigerated goods. In this case, an artist will tell you that the northern light is more pure light with lower UV effects. Here, Kroger has shunned the sidewalk/street and the lower UV light by catering to the auto traffic.

Not listed by the ULI is the inclusion of a drive-thru pharmacy window for an urban market. Walkable urban neighborhoods tend not to need such amenities. Rite-aid, just a block or so away, has no need of one nor does Wheeler's Pharmacy on Romany Road. Just a few years ago the CVS proposal at the Main and Vine intersection went through a long, torturous struggle because of a drive through window. That project failed.

The location of the proposed drive through on this plan presents some really troublesome thoughts. Firstly, it is hidden at the very back of the structure and under the similarly hidden auto ramp to the rooftop parking. If that was not enough, the loading dock ramp is arranged immediately adjacent to the pharmacy window or at least close enough to present possible traffic hazards. Add to that the traffic movements into or out of the Marquis access point and I see a real possibility of a SNAFU or worse.

Kroger seems to have made one concession to their standard floor plan in that the deli will occupy a portion of the space usually reserved for the produce section. Ostensibly this is to allow the pedestrian entrance to the “relaxing patio” behind the transit stop feature. Of course this transit feature may be omitted since they donated a considerable sum to the “Bank stop” across the street.

On the idea of this “patio” or sidewalk seating, it is unclear if this area will be like the seating at the Beer Trappe, Bourbon n' Toulouse or Charlie Brown's. These cited seating areas work well in the mild weather, but are primarily used by smokers due to the city's ban. Will this really be relaxing if it is all smokers? Will pedestrians want to use this as an entry point to the store if it is filled with smoke?

One of the details pointed out in Jeff Speck's book Walkable Cities is that the frequency and proximity of a building's entries to the sidewalk/street will raise the perception of an area as walkable. I have not heard of anyone devising a rating system or creating an algorithm to chart such perceptions but one cannot be far off. Positioning a building up to the street/sidewalk, or even within 20 feet of it, gives a more cozy feeling to the pedestrian but omitting any entry options of personally relating to it or its occupants turns those feelings to dread.

Our recent snowfall and the current Northeast storm brings up a seasonal complaint of mine. Kroger is, by far, not the only scofflaw in the clearing of the sidewalks which adjoin their property. While it is their duty and responsibility, by being farther removed from the sidewalk there are many who will give them a ”pass” but it really is a liability issue. By moving the building closer to the street, it would seem to make the duty imperative, but if it is the side or back of the building, that duty evaporates from the minds of management since there are no employee access points there. The suburban stores will never expect their customers to be to the rear of their facilities, but in this situation it is where they are forcing them to be.

The larger picture

Just what is the larger picture? At least one of the audience members started off with the big picture agenda questions. “When this store is expanded, will Kroger close the Romany Road store?” Very direct and to the point but also quickly shunted to the side as too far down the road. So, is Kroger not thinking in a long term frame of mind? I doubt that very much.

The very positioning of the proposed building hints that they are looking at the older office buildings along Ashland Ave and the rest of the property on the block, though they stated that they “have no plan to purchase more property” at this time. Granted the PNC bank is unlikely to sell as they would lose their visual street presence opposite the very active Chase bank facility, but with the rise of online banking neither is doing the volume they once did.

Speaking of the Romany road store, is it so under-performing that it need to be combined with another store or eliminated altogether? This store functions as a reliable “third place” in the lives of the neighborhood residents as do the aforementioned Wheeler's and the several restaurants in the area. They have been woven into the social fabric of the families there for several generations. In my mind, the Romany Road store is a better example of an urban grocery than what is proposed on Euclid.

One last point taken from the ULI report is that Grocery stores transform neighborhoods”. I would take that as both the addition to and the removal from a neighborhood. John Given, who helped develop a Ralph’s grocery store in South Park in downtown Los Angeles, described urban grocery stores as providing an essential element of street life for neighborhoods. The neighborhood grocery store, an urban market or not, it is more important to the everyday life of downtown than Rupp Arena or Keeneland.

To quote Seth Harry, an architect in Woodbine, Maryland, who has retail expertise “As long as walkable urban places are built from scratch or revitalized, more urban-format stores will follow”. In his view, the design of the store is driven by the urban fabric. Kroger may now realize that they had to rethink the placement of the parking in an urban location but it will still takes an urbanist architect to convince most operators to accept other design refinements.

Furthermore, Kroger's goals here may be diametrically opposed to both the purpose and function of urban markets. They stated that they wanted people to “buy more” when they shopped at the Euclid Kroger, but people who walk, bike, or use transit to arrive are not going to “buy more.” They already buy what they can carry. Kroger is using suburban thinking and trying to place it in an urban environment. That formula will not work.

There is also some question as to whether the very idea of acres of shopping in under one roof is even viable anymore. Malls are failing, or redefining themselves and Walmart type stores are shunned by the wealthier classes who would rather make trips to several boutique-style stores than one giant conglomerate comprised largely of products they don't want. Malls and superstores were originally meant to replace the old-world style village markets, suks and bazaars. For a while this worked, but shoppers today are more sophisticated than ever. They are not interested in fake village markets, they want real village markets – an experience that is simply not going to happen in any superstore or superstore mini-version. Quality, unique products are not usually to be found in such places.

So, an "urban" market?  Is it to be or not be, that is the question.


Anonymous said...

The "considerable sum" that Krogers donated to the Piggy Bank Public Art Covered Bus shelter was $2,000.
The buried utility lines will prevent them from incorporating a transit stop on their side of Euclid into their proposed expansion, and they know this.

Lex Streetsweeper said...

Thanks for the dollar amount but $2,000 is a considerable sum to most of us and is approximately 1/5 of the funds which Kickstarter was hoping to raise.

As to the other part of your comment, the power lines along that stretch of Euclid are very much above ground and strung on some very ugly metal poles which the immediate community would like to get rid of. The cost of burial for these lines is reported to start in the low six-figure range and that is just in front of the existing building. Fact is, the reason that the building does not set right on the sidewalk is the placement of said power lines and how close any structure can come to them. Alas, there is nothing to prevent them from providing a shelter on what I hope would be the front of the store and adjacent to the sidewalk.