Bringing Back the Corner Store

The corner store has a mythic place in our view of American cities. Mythic because, in most cities, they exist only in our minds.

Last week, the Seattle Transit Blog ran a guest post by Anders Meyer that looked at this issue.

Imagine if you could walk to work, or to the store to pick up groceries? Ride your bike with your children to their daycare, or pick up locally made holiday gifts from the boutique right around the corner? What if just doing the errands meant you’d run into a neighbor or friend who was happy to see you?

It seems like a simple thing -- the corner store -- but the economics of it makes them a struggle, particularly when we tilt the playing field so far in their competitor's direction. Let me show you what I mean.

We have one corner grocer remaining in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota: the Inwards Grocery Store. They are so low tech they don't even show up on the Google as a business. They are there on Google Street View, however, in the same place they have been for decades.

Notice a few things in that photo. They've been allowed on-street parking, but the street -- Oak Street -- is actually a state highway so it is engineered for speeds far greater than is safe for a neighborhood. It is not comfortable to park here; it doesn't feel safe. 

It's also not comfortable to cross. Not only is there no crosswalk but there is that problem of speeding traffic again, even if there ever was some acknowledgement that people may exist outside of an automobile. The curb radius for each corner is over-engineered to favor fast turning movements over the safety and convenience of people on foot. And even through there are sidewalks -- a complete street -- the lack of street trees, parked cars (the codes require redundant off street parking) and the general incoherence of this corridor make it less than a walkable city.

Here's the street that runs perpendicular to Oak Street. Inwards Grocery Store is in the upper right corner of the intersection.

Note the absence of any investments that acknowledge the existence of the store. The store has been there decades, yet the street contains ZERO indication that anyone from this neighborhood would ever -- EVER -- try and walk to it. No sidewalk. No walking area. Nothing.

This is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the community, a neighborhood with a really low rate of car ownership, yet every investment made assumes that everyone will drive everywhere. And park off street yet have ample room if, for some random reason, they chose to park on street. 

This isn't a matter of money. We could certainly have spent the resources that went into the extra wide street (that isn't being used) on a sidewalk. We could go out there now and stripe some of that to make walking a little more inviting. We choose not to do these things because we don't value this corner store, we don't understand the social and economic ecosystem of this neighborhood and, quite frankly, the people that live here don't show up to meetings and so we assume they are like the people who do.

We've done nothing to help this corner store prosper, yet it is there. More on that in a moment.

First, consider what we've done to help the big box grocery store succeed. Let's overlook redevelopment subsidies that allowed them to leave their old location and move to their new. In cold, hard cash we've spent untold sums of money on auto-oriented infrastructure to make sure that people -- and their huge delivery trucks -- can get to the big box quickly and easily.

Oh, and we sacrificed the pleasure and enjoyment of the adjacent neighborhood to make that happen. Whatever. Those people don't show up to meetings either and, after all, we required the building (and dumpsters) to be earth tone so it would blunt the aesthetic impact. 

We can't easily undo the damage that has been done, but we can take efforts to re-balance the playing field again and start bringing back the corner store. It starts with an question: Why is the Inwards Grocery Store still there when all the others have gone? I don't know for sure, but I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the fact that they own the building outright and so their ongoing capital costs are really low.

Here's an idea I got from Andres Duany years ago: Instead of requiring developers to pay park dedication fees or, as they can in Minnesota, set aside land for parks as part of their development, allow them to redirect that money into the cost of building a corner store. Let an association or a non-profit own it under the condition that they lease it -- at very low, low cost -- to a neighborhood business. Allow them to deed it to the business if it can stay in business for at least a decade. It would create the same kind of conditions that allow that small grocer in Brainerd to hang on, despite the entire deck stacked against it.

And while we're at it, how about we become more obsessive about ensuring that the people in that neighborhood can safely walk to the corner store and less obsessive about whether or not those same people can drive at high speed on congestion free roads on their way to the Walmart in the neighboring city.

(Top photo from Wikipedia)

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