Urban infill sites present opportunities for mixed-projects and a greater role in neighborhoods, as well as challenges for store design and parking.

A change is in the wind for food retailing in the United States. The traditional 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot (3,700- to 5,600-sq-m) suburban grocery store is facing pressure from all sides. Larger-format retailers like Walmart and Target increasingly are offering groceries as part of their mix, and specialty and niche grocers from Aldi to Whole Foods are eating away at traditional grocers’ market share. As well, with traditional grocers like A&P filing for bankruptcy in 2010, this year promises significant churn in the grocery market.

Much of the change will be focused on cities. Grocery stores are following the urban housing units developed in recent years in downtowns and close-in neighborhoods. As a result, independent grocers and national chains alike are licking their chops, seeking a place in the multiple-niche urban environment. However, urban infill sites present their own set of challenges, particularly when pedestrian, automobile, and truck access are considered and residential units are designed above the store. Furthermore, neighbors and city officials want parking minimized and hidden when possible to enhance the pedestrian realm, whereas grocers still rely on some degree of parking to attract customers. Successful grocery stores in well-designed projects can be popular and valuable additions to neighborhoods, but they must be designed properly.

NewburgGrocery_1_351Washington, D.C., has several recent examples of large-scale mixed-use projects with grocery store anchors located in a dense, walkable urban environment. Perhaps the most prominent is City Vista, developed by Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group and designed by Torti Gallas. It opened in 2008 and includes a 55,000-square-foot (5,100-sq-m) “urban lifestyle” Safeway grocery store as part of a large mixed-use development with 441 condominiums, 244 apartments, and 75,000 square feet (7,000 sq m) of additional retail space, including a hardware store, a dry cleaner, a gym, and restaurants, all on a 3.2-acre (12.5-ha) site.

With a split between customers arriving on foot and by car, a key for the grocery store design was to get one entrance to face the parking structure and the other to be an attractive pedestrian entrance off the street. Parking was reduced by 40 percent compared with a conventional suburban store, and the parking ratio is just 2.9 spaces per 1,000 square feet (3.1 per 100 sq m) of store space. This approach works in a dense urban environment, not only because of the 685 residential units in City Vista itself, but also because of the thousands of additional housing units within walking distance providing potential customers. In addition, the Safeway management understands that the urban shopper is more likely to shop once a day rather than once a week and thus places more emphasis on prepared foods and produce.

“When working on larger vertical, mixed-use projects with grocery anchors and residential above, one of the biggest challenges is to minimize compromises,” says Brian O’Looney, design architect with Torti Gallas and Partners, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who was the architect for City Vista and other mixed-use projects with urban format grocery stores. “One must ensure that the residential above is efficient while maximizing unit quality and [that] the ground floor is flexible to accommodate changing retailing and commercial needs over time.”

In Portland, Oregon, where Safeway has a store as part of a mixed-use development in the Pearl District, perhaps more noteworthy is the New Seasons Market on Hawthorne Boulevard in the southeast portion of the city. Opened in August 2010, the New Seasons on Hawthorne is the locally based company’s tenth store and exemplifies a full-service store in a small format with strong ties to the neighborhood.

With 16,000 square feet (1,500 sq m) of retail space squeezed onto a 19,800-square- foot (1,840-sq-m) site, parking was pushed to the rooftop, allowing for a strong pedestrian entrance and good urban presence facing the street. The store’s 37 parking spaces—2.3 spaces per 1,000 square feet (2.5 per 100 sq m)—are augmented by 90 bicycle parking spaces. “Peak-time parking is pretty full,” notes Greg Herrenbruck, director of design and construction for New Seasons Market.

Knowing they could not just stamp out a boilerplate design, Herrenbruck and his team held several meetings with neighborhood groups to focus on the project. Out of those came not only a number of green features such as recycled construction materials and a bioswale to catch rainwater, but also a walk-up coffee window located next to an outdoor seating area that opens an hour before the store itself—yet another aspect of good pedestrian-friendly design. Herrenbruck notes that the store has become a gathering place for the neighborhood.

Walmart is also looking to build stores in more urban settings. Last year, it announced that 51 percent of its sales are from grocery-related products. The firm also announced plans to build four stores in Washington, D.C., as part of its move into several new urban markets. In a notable break from tradition, one of the D.C. stores will occupy 75,000 square feet (7,000 sq m) on the ground floor of a mixed-use building with 315 apartment units above. The development is a joint venture between JBG Rosenfeld Retail and the Bennett Group, both based in the Washington area.

NewburgGrocery_4_250Walmart is also proposing smaller-format stores with as little as 20,000 square feet (1,900 sq m) of space, called Walmart Express, with a heavy emphasis on groceries. One of the first stores announced in that format is a 26,491-square-foot (2,461-sq-m) site in the Presidential Towers in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood.

Although facing pressure, the traditional suburban grocery store is far from extinct; some are adapting to more urban-style designs. A 50,000-square-foot (4,600-sq-m) Albertson’s grocery store in the town center at San Elijo Hills, California, a master-planned community north of San Diego, is one example. The town center, a Calthorpe Associates design, uses the firm’s “urban network” framework, separating large suburban-style arterial roads into narrower one-way streets. The result is better pedestrian connectivity and a more cohesive town center.

Located on the best side of the road to accommodate traffic heading home from work, the Albertson’s store is also accessible on foot or bicycle for residents who live nearby or in the town center. The store is flanked by a row of “liner lofts” and Main Street–style shops for a decidedly more urban feel, but still provides road access and sufficient parking to be viable in a suburban setting. “Setting the grocery anchor on the side of one leg of the couplet allows their parking to coexist with shop-lined streets and close-by residential,” explains ­Calthorpe. “It is a big retail engine hidden quietly behind walkable streets.”

Another good example of a suburban grocery is located outside Madison, Wisconsin. Middleton Hills, a new urbanist community designed by Andrés Duany, consists of 428 homes in the prairie, craftsman, and bungalow styles, plus a walkable town center, all on 150 acres (60 ha). The town center includes a 44,000-square-foot (4,100-sq-m) Copps Food Center grocery store that is typical in size and in having a parking lot fronting a major roadway, but which also has a pedestrian-friendly entrance off Frank Lloyd Wright Avenue, the main street of Middleton Hills. Like the Albertson’s at San Elijo Hills, the Copps at Middleton Hills is lined on two sides by a row of commercial and residential buildings that face the pedestrian-friendly street.

Fresh & Easy Market, a division of British-owned Tesco, is expanding in northern Cali­for­­nia with 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot (930- to 1,100-sq-m) urban and suburban stores. Among the stores slated to open this year is one in the Hunter’s Point/Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. It will be on the ground floor of a mixed-use development that includes 239 residential units developed by the Holliday Group and will be located at a station along the Third Street Muni streetcar line.

On the ultrasmall and uber-local scale, the Local D’Lish grocery in Minneapolis provides a walkable alternative for residents of the North Loop, a growing residential neighborhood near downtown. With an austere 2,000-square-foot (185-sq-m) store, owners Ann and Yulin Yin focus on locally grown groceries and great customer service. Like Mayberry Foodstuffs in downtown Cincinnati, which is even smaller at 550 square feet (51 sq m), it seeks to fill a need among area residents for a convenient, walkable grocery store.

Large and small retailers, from Walmart and Safeway down to Local D’Lish and Mayberry Foodstuffs, are reshaping the urban grocery experience. Though how it plays out in the next year and beyond will be interesting, these stores show that development opportunities abound for those who can get the design, mix of uses, and business model right.