Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Urban Grocers

Dateline: 11:55 am December 7, 2011 Filed under:

Major grocers are increasingly finding ways to open stores in urban neighborhoods (see my ULI article from May, 2011), but it isn’t easy. As was presented at Developing Walkable Urban Groceries in Mixed-Use Environments at the ULI Fall Meeting, getting the design of the grocery store right, while accommodating residential units on the site at the same time is particularly daunting.

This session was moderated by Neal Payton, principal at Torti-Gallas Partners, which has significant experience designing mixed-use urban grocery projects. It featured John Given, principal of the CIM Group, a developer of mixed-use urban grocery projects, and Donald Wright, senior vice-president of real estate and engineering for Safeway. The group brought significant, development, design and practical advice for those considering developing an urban grocery store as part of a mixed-use project.

The following is a range of the highlights and takeaway lessons from the session.

Mixed-use developers typically are either residential developers who add retail or retail developers who add residential. They specialize in one, but the secondary use often suffers. With urban grocery stores in mixed-use buildings, this will not suffice. You must have a development team who is well-versed in each

Design is tough to blend. It is physically hard to actually place residential units above a grocery store, as the floor space in the grocer cannot be interrupted by vertical impediments like elevators, residential entry lobbies, exit stairs, ventilation from garages, and plumbing stacks. In other words, the grocery store interior at an urban store must be largely similar to the layout of other stores in the brand. “Grocers have honed their suburban store design,” explains Payton, “but they have to be a little flexible in urban areas.” Typically column grids don’t match up, either. If there is room on the site to build the residential portion not directly above the store, or perhaps over liner retail instead, it is preferable, as was done at the CityVista project in Washington DC.

Parking is absolutely necessary. Nearly all urban format grocery stores need parking, and it must be separated from residential parking. Often grocers require five spaces per thousand square feet of store. Even in the substantially denser urban locations where significant percentages of customers walk, sufficient parking is still required, although it can be as low as two or three spaces per thousand square feet. Furthermore, Donald Wright was emphatic that whether it is on the roof of the store or underneath, parking must be easy to access, well-lit, have a higher ceiling than residential parking, and store signage and the entrance must be as intuitive as a surface-parked traditional suburban store. “One bad or confusing experience and a customer will not return,” he said.

Equally critical is the store’s pedestrian entrance, which in an urban area requires a welcoming access from the sidewalk. “Coming across a threshold is important,” says Wright. However, grocers don’t necessarily want too much exposure and light, as natural sunlight and windows can negatively affect HVAC systems and refrigerated goods. Plus, grocers rely on brand identity rather than window shopping and the ability to see their product. Thus, a big sign is more important than streetfront windows, and the sidewalk can be lined with complimentary retail shops.

Grocery stores rely on high volumes of truck deliveries, often during the night. If residential is part of the mix, it is important to hide truck loading docks, if possible under cover and enclosed to reduce noise.

Grocery stores transform neighborhoods. John Given, who helped develop the Ralph’s grocery store in South Park, downtown Los Angeles, describes urban grocery stores as providing an essential element of streetlife for neighborhoods. As for the Ralph’s grocery store, he believes it is more important to the everyday life of downtown than LA Live or Disney Hall.

Read more from the ULI Fall Meeting here.

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