Urban grocers proliferate

  • Harris Teeter in northern Virginia

    Harris Teeter in northern Virginia

    The Harris Teeter in the Village at Shirlington, northern Virginia, is a rare urban-format store without rail transit. But it is located in a mixed-use urban center. Photo Courtesy of Torti Gallas and Partners

  • Cityvista Safeway

    Cityvista Safeway

    Parking at the Safeway at transit-oriented Cityvista was reduced by 40 percent. Photo courtesy of Torti Gallas and Partners

  • Columbia Heights Urban Supermarket

    Columbia Heights Urban Supermarket

    Urban-format stores, like this one in Columbia Heights, are built to the sidewalk. Photo courtesy of MV+A Architects

  • Whole Foods Alexandria, VA

    Whole Foods Alexandria, VA

    Courtesy of MV+A Architects

Rob Steuteville
October-November 2009
Issue Date: 
Thu, 2009-10-01
Demographic and market conditions are causing supermarkets in the District of Columbia region and elsewhere to modify their designs and fit walkable neighborhoods.

A trend towards urban supermarkets is evident even in this economic downturn. In the Washington, DC, area, at least 10 grocery stores with pedestrian-friendly design have been built or are moving toward construction.

Urban-format grocery stores are built mostly in transit-served, walkable neighborhoods — often where new urban development is taking place, says Brian O’Looney of Torti Gallas and Partners in Silver Spring, Maryland. The firm is working on a Whole Foods Market in North Bethesda, Maryland, with MV+A Architects, and on Safeways in Washington’s Georgetown and Tenleytown sections. All are urban-format stores; the first two are expected to open in 2010. The Tenleytown store is scheduled to start construction next year.

“We are definitely focusing on stores in our urban core and will not be building stores in urban areas that are growth dependent,” says Craig Muckle, manager of public affairs and government relations for Safeway’s Eastern Division. Safeway is one of North America’s largest supermarket chains with more than 1,700 stores, the company reports.

Parking is being reduced and is placed below or above the store — or in the interior of the block in urban-format stores. One or two sides of a supermarket are often lined with shops that activate the street and avoid presenting a blank wall to pedestrians.

One entrance to an urban-format store must open to a quality urban environment, O’Looney says. Supermarkets typically have two entrances, he explains. In the case of conventional stores, both entrances face parking. For an urban store, one entrance leads to parking and the other to the street.

Until recently, supermarket chains focused primarily on the suburbs. The business model involved rolling out the same store with parking in front, again and again. When supermarkets did build in cities, they plunked down the same suburban box whenever possible. This approach worked as long as new growth was taking place primarily in the suburbs and the cities languished.

In the mid-1990s — just as the fortunes of cities began to shift — Whole Foods pioneered more urban formats, says Jim Voelzke, an principal with MV+A Architects of Bethesda. Whole Foods found an eager market — and Harris Teeter, Safeway, and Giant later followed with urban-format stores in the DC area, he says.

The region is not unusual, the architects say. Wherever the right conditions exist — good-quality urbanism and underserved markets — supermarket operators are now willing the break the old rules.

Expectations change in the suburbs
The housing meltdown has had a significant impact, says Seth Harry, an architect in Woodbine, Maryland, who has retail expertise. Supermarket operators can no longer build in the distant suburbs in the expectation that thousands of housing units will soon spring up to support the store. “That model is more or less dead,” Harry says. “Even the guys who built empires based on that model are recognizing that they are looking at a new paradigm.”

Meanwhile, cities have seen a resurgence in residential construction in the last decade, and the new residents are bringing their retail dollars with them, Harry says.

Urban-format stores are mostly being built in affluent parts of cities, Harry adds. These areas have higher land values and often citizens and public officials that demand high-quality urban design. Taxes and payroll costs may also be higher, he notes. But urban centers offer many more affluent customers in close proximity to the store — and these areas are often underserved by retail, Harry says.

Muckle confirms that Safeway is pressured to place stores on the street in urban areas. However, he also notes that entitlements have come more quickly in recent years in DC. “There’s a desire to see these things happen faster, shared by government officials and different constituencies,” he says.

Supermarket operators are still reluctant to locate in poor sections of cities — and when they do, they tend to build conventional suburban stores on cheap sites like old warehouse properties, Harry says. “They will argue that you are lucky to have us here serving this demographic at all,” he says. But, as urban formats “become more commonplace and store operators are more comfortable with the metrics of urban stores, the trend will work its way down to the less affluent areas,” he predicts.

Parking is the biggest design challenge, Voelzke says. Operators use standard suburban ratios of 5 spaces per thousand square feet. This much parking is usually not necessary or economical in urban locations, where customers walk and take transit. Parking is usually cut to 4 per 1,000 square feet — and in medium- or high-density urban locations the number can be pared down to the 2s or 3s (per thousand square feet), he says. A Safeway in Cityvista, a transit-oriented project on 5th and K streets NW, DC, has a parking ratio of 2.9 per 1,000 square feet, Muckle reports.

In mixed-use projects, the rent paid by the supermarket may be subsidized and not reflect the full construction costs, Harry notes. A subsidy makes sense if the developer believes the supermarket will help to sell residential units, he explains.

Depending on the construction that is required, costs can be substantially higher in urban locations, but they vary. “In some cases the costs are fairly similar,” says Muckle. “We try to keep them down as much as possible.” One key is to avoid the high cost of digging underground parking if possible, he says.

The interior layout of the urban stores hasn’t changed much, O’Looney says — but a greater emphasis is placed on sales of high-quality produce and natural and prepared foods. The mindset of the shopper is different, Voelzke adds. People often shop daily at urban stores instead of weekly, and purchase less food per visit.

So far, the financials have been sound. “I see a continuation of this trend,” Voelzke says. “I have yet to hear of a single store that has not been successful and able to meet reasonable expectations.”

As long as walkable urban places are built from scratch or revitalized, more urban-format stores will follow, Harry says. In his view, the design of the store is driven by the urban fabric.

Mainstream supermarkets now realize that they have to rethink the placement of the parking in urban locations, O’Looney says. But it still takes an urbanist architect to convince most operators to accept other design refinements — such as including liner stores on two sides of the building, he adds.

The Georgetown Safeway is a good example of how that company’s approach has changed. The store is under construction on the site of an older 45,000 square foot Safeway store with parking in front. The new 65,000 square foot store, geared to what Safeway calls the urban “lifestyle” market, is raised up a level with parking below. Small retail shops line the street and hide the parking. 

Built examples of urban-format stores
• A 55,000 square foot Safeway opened in 2007 at Cityvista, which also includes 685 rental units and another 75,000 square feet of retail. The grocery store space is 28 feet high, which allows for two levels of liner retail and restaurants — placed on two sides of the building. The third side has the main entrance and street windows that display the produce section. The fourth side has the loading dock. The parking is located below the store.

Cityvista is located in the NoMa (north of Massachusetts) neighborhood, which has seen construction of 8,000 apartments in recent years, according to Wikipedia. It’s an example of how new urban development can drive supermarket location. Torti Gallas designed this store with Michael Marshall Architecture.

• A 42,000 square foot Whole Foods Market is situated under three stories of condominiums — 116 total — and a 10,000 square foot fitness center in Alexandria, Virginia. The building at Duke Street and Holland Lane sits on the northeast corner of the 80-acre, high-density, new urban Carlyle development — and near the Metro. MV+A’s design, with sloped roofs and pilasters, responds to the historic architecture of the city as well as recent buildings — some modernist — in Carlyle, Voelzke notes. Three levels of parking, accessed by a rear alley, are below the store, which was completed in 2006.

• A 55,000 square foot Giant was completed in 2007 near the Columbia Heights Metro station in DC, a revitalizing neighborhood that won a CNU Charter Award in 2009. The store, with two levels of parking above, fills out a block that includes the reuse of the historic Tivoli Theater building and another new retail/office building. The supermarket and mixed-use building were designed by MV+A with materials and massing to complement the theater. The north face of the block is lined with three-story townhouses, reflecting the existing housing across Monroe Street.