Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A grocery store of one's own

My husband and I decided to check out Sunterra's new urban market at the base of the Keynote condos on 1st Street S.E. between 11th and 12th avenue. As I squeezed the squash and sampled the fresh baking, my body tingled with, I'm afraid to admit this, raging envy. A real urban grocery store – nicely designed, full of fresh produce, pedestrian friendly, stocked with some of my favourite brands, complete with cafe/restaurant. In my three year old voice I cried out "Why can't I have one?"

Why, I thought, do I still have to drive to get my groceries? (readers, you know how much I love driving).

Perhaps it's because I come from a family of grocers that I've become so obsessed with this topic. My Mom's family owned a wonderful well-stocked general store in a small town in Saskatchewan. (not the one pictured by the way) My Mom has been feeding people her whole life. She knows all about the power of good food. And so do I.

It's a basic need. If we are talking about designing a true walkable, vibrant, liveable urban neighborhood what is the one thing that is absolutely necessary? A grocery store. Unlike other commercial retail establishments, a grocery store is a necessity. Not a corner convenience store where twinkies are a major food group, but a real grocery store with fresh produce, healthy options and all the necessities in one spot. A store that is easy to access for those living in the neighbourhood not just by car but by foot/train/bus/bike/wheelchair. Because food is the basic element that ties us all together, rich or poor, young or old, black or white, employed or unemployed, sport fanatic or fine art lover – everyone needs to eat.

It's happening all across North America. There's a name for this phenomenon – 'the urban grocery gap'. The shortage began when many supermarkets left mixed-income central city locations in the 60s and 70s, relocating to the shiny, new and potentially more profitable suburbs. (Sadly grocery store developers are unaware that even though many urban communities do tend to be made up of lower income populations, the density of these neighborhoods means that they tend to have more income per square foot than suburban areas).

There is an obvious 'catch 22' situation at work here. Potential retail developers will not set up shop in an area without significant density and would-be inner city dwellers will not move into a neighbourhood that does not have basic services like a grocery store. Add to this the sometimes misguided fear of crime and deterrence caused by expensive real estate and you've got avoidance on the part of (grocery store)developers.

But times they are a changing. Statistics show that inner city communities are starting to lure people back with their proximity to urban amenities, walkable streets and smarter design. It's not uncommon now to hear negative comments about cookie-cutter-style big box grocery stores with their lackluster customer service, fronted by miles of pavement. There is a real need out there for a more European style store, where shoppers purchase smaller amounts, more regularly. Where customers walk or take public transit to buy food. Where, dare I say, a charming atmosphere prevails.

The fact that grocery stores had been avoiding setting up in certain areas for decades caused pockets of 'food deserts' (that's desert not dessert) some even referring to this issue as 'food apartheid'. More seriously, not being able to access good healthy food has been linked to obesity, diabetes and other health problems, with higher percentages of these diseases found in lower income neighbourhoods where the community often rely on corner convenience stores for their sustenance.

Many cities in North America are waking up to this problem and are trying to do something about it. Pennsylvania passed the first U.S. economic development initiative aimed at improving access to grocery stores that sell healthy food - this initiative included $41 million to build new grocery stores in under-served locations state-wide. New York city created a supermarket commission to aid in identifying policy solutions to the urban grocery gap and other issues around access to healthy food. Their city council has partnered up with groups like the food trust and the food industry alliance to pool resources. Even the farmer's markets and the united food and commercial workers union have joined in to help.

But one of the biggest changes is coming from cities that are willing to offer incentive packages like utility discounts, low interest loans and tax credits to grocery store developers who set up shop where they are really needed, not necessarily where profits are at their premium. City planning departments have become advocates for these businesses, acting like account managers, they offer subsidies and a streamlined approval process to encourage growth. It comes down to the belief that, because food is such an important issue, it shouldn't be left to the whims of the market.

Bridgeland, the place I call home, has won numerous design awards for its forward thinking plan, and indeed it is a nice looking neighbuorhood, but for me it has not lived up to the dream. That missing link is the missing grocery store. Indeed that might be one of the reasons why we were not selected as one of Avenue's top 15 places to live in Calgary. Don't underestimate the power of food.

Maybe this is the place that could offer a little incentive package to would-be grocery store developers out there?

Some urban grocery stores that I love include Meinhardts, Urban Fare, Sunterra Market, the Urban Fresh concept stores by Sobeys, Whole Foods, Dean + Deluca ...and would be very happy if anyone of them decided to set up shop in my neighbourhood. I also think that Bridgeland would be an excellent location for a local farmer's market. Hint-hint.

Eat. Pray. Love. Notice which word comes first?
Enough said.

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