Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The Joe Urban Food Conundrum

Dateline: 10:10 am July 16, 2010 Filed under:

It bothers me that my four-year-old son Ellis is most familiar with Target as the source of his food. We’ve tried to balance that with the purchase of a Community Share Agriculture (CSA), so a trip to the farm where that food comes from is certainly in order. Still, in a perfect world, I’d have a full-service grocery store a five-minute walk from my house, and the most logical location would be next to the 38th Street light rail station.

Every transit station area should be anchored by a grocery store. A recent Citiwire post by Neal Peirce about supermarkets as neighborhood centers supports this notion. Peirce’s column primarily looked at The Supermarket as a Neighborhood Building Block, an article by Mark Hinshaw and Brian Vanneman that appeared in Planning magazine in March 2010. Hinshaw and Vanneman laid out a well-supported argument that grocery stores should anchor neighborhood centers. It is even better if they are located near a transit station.

My own 38th Street Station seems to have missed an opportunity, and so I must remain hopeful. The proposed Longfellow Station project seems to be moving ahead, and will replace the vacant Purina Mill. The current plan calls for around 200 apartment units with 10,000 square feet of retail space. This is phase one of a bigger project, but the original iteration of the project was to have contained more housing units and 40,000 square feet of retail, including a full-service grocer.

The grocer was to have been a Fresh Seasons Market, of which there are two suburban examples in the Twin Cities. I met with the owner of Fresh Seasons, Dale Riley, a veteran of other urban grocery store development, and toured one of his existing stores. The store at Longfellow Station was to have been 18,000 square feet and anchored the corner across from the 38th Street light rail station. The economic and commercial real estate problems of the last couple years scuttled the Fresh Seasons portion of this project, so Longfellow Station will likley go ahead without it. The timing wasn’t quite right.

For now, the 38th Street Station is left without a grocery anchor, but I hold out hope that one day there will be. Those of us in the neighborhood are not lacking for grocery choice, but Fresh Seasons Market could still come in and occupy an underserved, mid-market full-service niche. Yes, there are a couple grocery stores near the transit station one stop up the line, including an Aldi in the ground floor of a mixed-use building, exactly the kind of development we should be encouraging. But I don’t regularly shop at Aldi. The other two choices are large grocers with huge surface parking lots in front – if I shop there I drive, as the walk is not pleasant, reinforcing Hinshaw and Vanneman’s argument that people like an attractive pedestrian experience.

The presence of light rail determined our decision to buy a nearby home. A grocery store will help us stay. For now, I’ll drive for most of my food, and I’ll do my best to teach my kids where our food comes from, and that it isn’t all from SuperTarget.

This is not an “oh, woe is me” tale. I think there is a powerful argument at the policy level to anchor transit station areas with grocery stores. We must leverage the dollars spent on good transit improvements and mixed-use station area plans with the ability to actually implement them and provide actual destinations within our station areas. Grocers should be given the appropriate incentives to locate their businesses there.

We all need to eat. Locating the point of purchase of much or all of our food in a walkable location near transit will provide considerable incentives to actually reduce our reliance on the automobile.

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