Major grocers are increasingly finding ways to open stores in urban neighborhoods (see the following article in the May 2011 issue of Urban Land: http://urbanland.uli.org/industry-sectors/grocery-wars/), but it isn’t easy. As noted during the “Developing Walkable Urban Groceries in Mixed-Use Environments” session at the Urban Land Institute’s 2011 Fall Meeting in Los Angeles last month, getting the design of a 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 and 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 considerable 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.

1. Mixed-use expertise. 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 imbalance will not suffice. One must have a development team who is well versed in each.
2. Design is tough to blend. It is physically hard to actually place residential units above a grocery store, as the floor space in the store cannot be interrupted by vertical impediments like elevators, residential entry lobbies, exit stairs, ventilation from garages, and plumbing stacks. In other words, the interior of an urban grocery store must be largely similar to the layout of other stores in the brand. “Grocers have honed their suburban store design,” explained 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 linear retail instead, it is preferable, as was done at the CityVista project in Washington, D.C.
3. 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 1,000 square feet (93 sq m) of store. Even 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. Furthermore, Wright was emphatic that whether it is on the roof of the store or underneath, parking must be easy to access and well-lit, and have a higher ceiling than residential parking. Also, store signage and the entrance must be as intuitive as those used for a surface-parked traditional suburban store. “One bad or confusing experience and a customer will not return,” he said.
4. Pedestrian entrance. Equally critical is the store’s pedestrian entrance, which in an urban area requires a welcoming access point from the sidewalk. “Coming across a threshold is important,” said 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 customers’ ability to see their product. Thus, a big sign is more important than streetfront windows, and the sidewalk can be lined with complementary retail shops.
5. Delivery dock design. 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.
6. Grocery stores transform neighborhoods. John Given, who helped develop the 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. As for the Ralph’s grocery store, he said he believes it is more important to the everyday life of downtown than L.A. Live or Disney Hall.