So, You'd Like a Neighborhood Grocery Store...


In a volunteer capacity as a member of my city’s planning commission, I’m working with a group of others on a study in my hometown of Brainerd, MN, focusing on one specific street. This street—called Kingwood Street—is a block north of the east/west highway stroad that runs through the middle of town.

As part of this project, I was able to walk the street along with a group of residents and business-owners from the neighborhood. The goal is to understand the street through their eyes and experiences, so we asked them to narrate their reactions along the way. In particular, comments on one specific building stood out to me. I’ve not been able to stop thinking about the implications since last week.

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The building is an old corner commercial building, something that at one point was a dentist’s office but also reportedly was a grocer in a prior iteration. Today it is vacant, except for a small apartment rented on the back side. It’s rather nondescript.

A lot of the tension along Kingwood is over commercial development, especially as it creeps back from the stroad. Many homes that used to face other homes now face parking lots, a reality that tends to reinforce decline. Among many—perhaps most—participants, there is a stated desire to limit future commercial development.

Except when it fits with the neighborhood. Stopping at this little building, we discussed potential future uses. Accountant? Sure. Coffee shop? Yes! Corner grocery? That would be great. The discussion seemed to welcome a broad range of commercial development, as long as it fit in this small building and remained neighborhood-focused. That seemed reasonable.

As we were about to move on after a good discussion, one resident remarked that none of the businesses we discussed—particularly the grocery store—would be viable there because it would rely on neighborhood patrons and there just weren’t enough of them there. Catch-22.

I’m aware that this neighborhood used to be full of grocery stores. In fact, on the south side of town, I documented that there were once thirteen grocery stores in an area smaller than this. That’s incredible since we only have one, giant grocery store now along with a small co-op.

So, what would it take to make a grocery store viable in this location? If we wanted that to happen, what would it take? As with all complex systems, the answer to that question prompts an endless succession of questions, but let’s follow a couple because they illustrate how much power we have at the local level.

First, to be viable, a neighborhood grocery would need plenty of patrons. There are thousands of people living within a few blocks of this location, but I suspect that few would get their groceries here. Most would get in their car and, once driving, travel the extra mile to the big box store. So, to convert enough residents of the neighborhood into patrons, we’d need to get more people out of their cars and get them walking.

There’s a push/pull strategy to making this shift. The push is that we need to stop equating local mobility with economic development. In short, while it needs to be easy to get to the next regional center on a road, it doesn’t need to be quick and easy to take city streets to get to the edge of town. Our city streets should be designed as a platform for wealth creation, not to speed traffic along.

This push would also help with the pull strategy of making it easier to walk. Right now, we have a working definition for “walkable” as “able to be walked.” If one can physically walk from one place to another, we tend to consider that walkable, despite the relative safety, comfort or utility of the walk. If we want a grocery here to be viable, we must have a deeper commitment to walkability.

In his book, The Walkable City, architect and planner Jeff Speck explains that great streets have four essential elements. Great streets are useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

  • Useful. There must be places to go that are worth going to.

  • Safe. People need to feel safe visiting the street.

  • Comfortable. Time spent in the street needs to be pleasant and enjoyable.

  • Interesting. The street can't be monotonous but instead needs to have some life to it.

Going to the grocery would make the walk useful, but going to an accountant’s office, a coffee shop, a bakery and then the grocery would make it even more useful. A grocery store in isolation might be a pull, but a grocery has a better change of thriving within an ecosystem of other enterprises. Converting the parking lots to other neighborhood-scaled businesses, and inviting more in throughout the neighborhood, would not only improve the tax base at little cost, it would go a long way towards creating that ecosystem.

Slowing traffic on our streets and shifting our emphasis from traffic flow to wealth creation would not only cost less, it would make walking safer and—in time—even comfortable. Not allowing more surface lots—especially when on street parking is barely used—would also help a lot, eventually making a walk interesting as well. The more people that walk, the more inviting walking will become, a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

If we really want to accelerate things, we need more people living in the neighborhood. Today, the neighborhood experiences stagnation and—along Kingwood—even decline. That makes investment more of the slum-lord version than the “convert a single-family home to a duplex” version. To make the latter a reality, we not only need to update our codes, we need underlying land values—the driver of positive redevelopment—to gradually increase.

What would make the land in this neighborhood gradually increase in value? One obvious answer is to improve the experience of living in the neighborhood and to do it in a way that gives the neighborhood some kind of exclusivity not available to the edge of town. For example, improvements to the neighborhood park add to the quality of life, but expanding parking in the park —converting greenspace to asphalt—shifts the value of those improvements from the neighborhood to the region, diluting that value in the process.

Another example would be to not build a multi-million-dollar parking ramp in the downtown but to instead focus on improving walkability between the neighborhood and the downtown. Game-changing walkability improvements can be done for pennies on the dollar compared to the cost of a ramp. Without an excess supply of parking, and with easy walking access, the land within ten blocks of downtown is going to become dramatically more valuable simply because of its exclusivity.

I could go on here and iterate like this for a long time, but there is one overriding insight that should be obvious by now: The more this neighborhood—and the more this city—evolves to function like it did prior to the Suburban Experiment, the more successful it will be.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7 (Productive Places) from my upcoming book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity:

The team at Urban3 has modeled hundreds of entire cities around North America. This massive data set has revealed a near-universal set of trends, results that are consistently observed in cities of all sizes, in all geographies, using all taxing systems, across the continent. These include: 

  • Older neighborhoods financially outperform newer neighborhoods. This is especially true when the older neighborhoods are pre-1930 and newer neighborhoods are post-1950. 

  • Blight is not an indicator of financial productivity. Some of the most financially productive neighborhoods are also the most blighted. 

  • While there are exceptions for highly gentrified areas, poorer neighborhoods tend to financially outperform wealthier neighborhoods. 

  • For cities with a traditional neighborhood core, the closer to the core, the higher the level of financial productivity. 

  • The more stories a building has, the greater its financial productivity tends to be. 

  • The more reliant on the automobile a development pattern is, the less financially productive it tends to be. 

I would really like to see that little building turned into a grocery store or, really, anything that would provide a service to the neighborhood. To get that result, however, we need to look beyond the building to the broader ecosystem that it sits within. Only by incrementally nurturing that human habitat will we experience real prosperity. That’s what it means to build a Strong Town.

Update (6/3/19 at 1:18 PM)

I woke up this morning and there we were on the front page of the local paper. It’s not like I’m hurting for media attention, but it’s kind of fun when your parents get to see it with their morning coffee.

Also, it’s kind of amazing to me how many of you believe this is an article about getting a grocery store in a specific location instead of using a neighborhood aspiration as a way to incrementally respond to complexity within an evolving human habitat. Thankfully, there is Spencer, who gets it.

Can you quote the relevant text where the article advocates for telling the building owners what they had to do? Apart from revealing nothing about the ownership situation (perhaps the owner was participating in the walk and looking for ideas), the entire premise of the article was about controlling the _public_ realm to create an ecosystem where residents can see the change they want.