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Greater Number of Smaller Grocery Stores the Key to Revitalizing St. Louis?

Last week a couple of seemingly unrelated posts converged here. Discussions about walking to the new Schnuck’s store coupled with a new book by a former St. Louisan on living car-free or at least car-lite and the usual discussion of mass transit.

As one commenter noted, it is regular grocery shopping that increases the apparent need for many of us to own, maintain and drive a personal car. Food is the one item we cannot defer making a purchase. That computer, new shoes or artwork can be put off but on a very regular basis we are all making a trek to the grocery store. The exception is my non-cooking friends but they still make it to the store for prepared meals and beverages.

I have some theories about grocery stores, sprawl and auto use. At this time I can offer no real evidence to prove or disprove my theories. But, I wanted to share and get your feedback.

This will be a cause-effect debate. Starting in the 1950s grocery stores moved from the small storefront to bigger stores with parking lots (Schnuck’s, Brentwood, 1952) and in the decades since each new store has grown larger and larger. As a result the total number of grocery stores serving the St. Louis region, relative to population, has probably decreased. The percentage of population within walking distance of a grocery store has also likely decreased.

So while most would say we fell in love with the car and shopping centers and grocery stores simply responded I don’t think that is the full picture. That may have been true initially but what has morphed over the last half century is the other way around: due to the travel distance required to get to a grocery store we have continued to need cars. At some point, as generations past, I believe the cause-effect reversed themselves. We don’t buy cars now because we want to, but because we must do so if we expect to feed our families.

While in Toronto this summer I was amazed at the lack of large chain grocery stores in the central core of the region, roughly the size of the City of St. Louis. Instead, every major street was a buzz with smaller markets and produce stands. For the person living in Toronto, the need for a car to buy groceries was nil. Instead they were offered numerous choices on where to shop. If they wanted to make some purchases at a more conventional grocery store a number of them were located along the subway lines further away from the core.

So my theory is that part of what is holding back St. Louis from repopulating as an urban core is partially the lack of grocery stores within walking distance from residential neighborhoods. Certainly, schools and mass transit are related issues but for those seeking a more urban and mostly car-free existence, it is a challenge to walk to the grocery store in the City of St. Louis unless you choose your place of residence carefully.

To this end, can we see a correlation with neighborhood density not around a transit stop but around grocery stores? So my theory goes that to rejuvenate and repopulate this city we need to have a reputable grocery store within a 1/4 mile walking distance of everyone. That is a lot of stores. Naturally, it would not happen overnight but you get the idea.

What wouldn’t work is the mammoth stores such as Schnuck’s (63,000sf), Dierberg’s, Shop-N-Save or even Whole Foods which are now approaching these other chains on store size. These chains will all claim they need to be bigger and bigger to compete. But does this only hold true in the far suburbs where they are competing to fill up a suburban family’s SUV? Chains like the locally based Save-A-Lot and Straub’s survive with smaller formats (granted, quite different from each other). California-based Trader Joe’s (owned by a trust of the brother that owns Aldi) also operates smaller format stores, roughly 15,000sf.

Can a chain operate more smaller stores and be as efficient as a single bigger store? It would seem the answer is yes. Is there a market for both type of store? Absolutely. The problem, as I see it, is we all assume the stores will get bigger and that we must drive to do our shopping. A good urban balance is not achieved locally between the bigger stores and the more reasonable sized stores.

Coming into the picture are other places to buy food such as Walgreen’s, CVS (in Illinois), Target and Wal-Mart. Locally-owned stores such as City Grocers, J’s International and numerous ethnic markets do serve a local need. And we have places like 7-11 and QT that supply basics on a convenience basis (24hrs, close by, cha-ching). And finally we see a resurgence in public markets throughout the city and region.

But, back to my theories and auto use. I believe that if we managed to locate a larger number of smaller stores (Aldi, Trader Joe’s, City Grocers, Straub’s, etc..) along with more farmer’s markets we can begin to break the auto habit. This would accomplish a number of things. Those on the lower end of the economic range, assuming they could use public transportation to get to work, could function in society without the huge financial burden of a car. This could very well improve their financial picture. The same holds true on up the economic ladder. By having fewer people driving within the city we’d have less need to build more parking structures. Our priorities would shift from road building projects to narrowing roads, widening sidewalks and constructing new buildings (local stores) where surface parking once existed. Demand for localized mass transit would increase substantially as more people lived within the city and more and more of those did not own personal vehicles.

Car sharing services would also be able to do well in such a market. In these cases, we could simply rent a car for a few hours to make that trip to the winery for the afternoon or to run to that business meeting out in the burbs not served by mass transit. That new TV, purchased with money saved by not owning a car, can be delivered.

Grocery shopping is keeping us from living a more car-free, walkable lifestyle in this city. Granted, if we were to subsidize the construction of 25 new stores in the city we would not see an immediate change. The correlation is there but it is not a direct cause-effect. But there is no denying that for many car ownership is required to lug home the week’s worth of groceries from the mega grocer.

– Steve

 

A Review of the Actual Site Plan of Loughborough Commons

I’ve finally seen the approved site plan for Loughborough Commons: Pedestrian access off Grand at the south end near the Lowe’s? None. Public sidewalk along Grand? None. Sidewalk along the west side of the main drive? None. Public sidewalk along Loughborough? Yes. Sidewalk along the east side of the main drive. Yes. Bike Parking? None. Parcel A (aka big pile-o-dirt)? Scary!

Let’s look at each individually:

As indicated earlier no pedestrian access is planned at the south entrance to Loughborough Commons. This secondary entrance is a wide 35ft and is near many homes to the west of the project as well as other homes where someone might walk along Koeln under I-55. Again, the drawings do not indicate any accommodation for pedestrians at this end — those walking will need to walk along the grass, walk in the auto drive or just get in their car. You can say that someone won’t walk to Lowe’s to buy drywall which is true enough. However, hardware stores of all sizes have many small sales. Furthermore, someone living in this area would naturally go this direction to get to the Schnuck’s grocery store.

Any pedestrian walking along Grand will need to be on the west side of the street as no sidewalk is being constructed along the east side of the street. While not serving any building entrances I am a firm believer in city streets having sidewalks on both sides.

At the main entrance on Loughborough the project drawings do not indicate any internal sidewalk along the west side of the entrance. This is the most logical side for those coming from all the houses to the west of the project. There will be a sidewalk leading to Parcel A but I will discuss that in greater detail later in this post.

Desco is replacing the sidewalk along the length of Loughborough. In an early post from this week I may have suggested this was not the case but in later posts was clear they were indeed replacing the sidewalk.

And finally, as Ald. Villa indicated via email and engineer Dennice Kowelman indicated via phone, they will have an internal sidewalk along the east side of the main drive. The drawings indicate it will be 5ft wide and run adjacent to the drive itself. While this is indicated on the construction documents it was not shown on the public drawings to the public in January 2005 nor does their current construction suggest such a sidewalk. I’m at a loss why the sidewalk was not poured when they did the driveway. I’m also baffled they have graded the soil and planted grass seed if they are going to do a sidewalk. They also have some access covers that would appear to be placed in a manner that will present some challenges. Again, it does not appear they will be putting a sidewalk here but the construction documents do show it. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and presume it was a matter of construction phasing.

The drawings indicate at the bottom of the hill they’d have a crosswalk taking you to the west across a 24ft drive to a striped corner and then south across a 33ft drive to a sidewalk along the front of the as yet to be built additional retail spaces north of the Schnuck’s. While I am happy they have at least this much shown it is simply not enough given the size of the project (30 acres, $40 million) and the size of the public tax breaks ($14 million). So the expectation is someone must follow a maze to get from A to B. But human nature just doesn’t work that way, pedestrians naturally take the shortest path unless the longer path is far more compelling. A plain sidewalk abutting the drive on the east is not more compelling. It dumps you out at the parking and intersection of internal drives. What will happen is people will most likely continue walking along the west side of the drive either in the drive itself or on the grass — we will probably see a worn path next year similar to those at places like Gravois Plaza.

Bike parking? Sorry, you’ll have to lock your bike to the cart racks and hope someone doesn’t hit it as they pull up in their Hummer. And yes, you can bike to a hardware store and buy supplies —- my storage on my bike is more capable than that on my scooter. It is possible some of the outparcel buildings may have some bike parking as they are not yet detailed. Well, I take that back. Parcels B, C, D and E where the current Schnuck’s is located (yes four individual parcels) are not detailed. Parcel A, where homes once stood and where you now see the great mound of Carondelet, is highly detailed. And that is the scary part.

The 13,800sf strip building is facing north toward the park but it is not located along the Loughborough sidewalk where you might expect an urban building to be. No sir, it is set back as far as it can be on that parcel with 85+/- parking spaces between it and Loughborough. Cars coming and going to this section will use the main entrance of the center. A sidewalk is shown from Loughborough where the grass is now but connecting up to this strip center, not down to the main walk in front of Schnuck’s.

Let’s assume for a moment that the St. Louis Bread Co is planning to lease space in the strip portion on this parcel rather than construct a free-standing building with drive-thru in the lower section. And you are there having your “pick-two” lunch and decide to walk over the Schnuck’s to get a few things. Following their sidewalk plan you’d walk back up to Loughborough, cross the main drive to the east, head south along the sidewalk, cross back over the main drive again this time to the west, and then cross another drive before reaching the sidewalk heading to the Schnuck’s store. Or, you cut through the grass and save roughly 350ft in distance. If you are in a wheel chair you’ll be forced to take the longer route.

So maybe Loughborough Commons isn’t the lowest form of development. It is one tiny step above the lowest because of the yet to be built sidewalk on one side of only one entrance. Yet the strip center look facing Carondelet Park will be a horrible sight and perhaps keeps them at the lowest level regardless of the final tenant(s). I’ve made a formal request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law for copies of the site plan — once obtained I will publish them here for you to review and come to your own conclusions.

– Steve

 

Urban Economic Development

Last night was my class in Urban Economic Development. We did a quick overview of what we will look at this semester but the professor did touch on TIFs and Eminent Domain. He also talked about job creation. He encouraged us to consider a career in economic development, indicating one of the key areas that has been lacking is a review of wether or not various incentives actually work. Do they bring in the dollars and jobs claimed?

Well, the St. Louis Business Journal had a story Monday on my favorite new development, Loughborough Commons, talking about economic development:

The $40 million Loughborough Commons retail development by The DESCO Group is expected to bring more money to St. Louis city coffers and create 300 permanent jobs when completed in 2007.

Clayton-based DESCO Group has worked with the city of St. Louis to create a retail center that is expected to generate more than $2 million in annual sales tax revenue, up from an approximate $425,000 generated by businesses located at the site prior to the redevelopment, according to DESCO, which is the real estate arm of Schnuck Markets.

“This is a very good example of a public-private partnership,” Sachtleben said. The company began discussing the redevelopment plans with the city in 2004 and will receive an assistance package of $14 million. The deal consists of an $11 million sales tax and real estate tax incentives package, and a $3 million community improvement district package, he said. The assistance will be generated by the new tax dollars from the development and will not be taken from the city’s taxing districts, he said. Sachtleben said the company has been thrilled with the cooperation of the city, noting that “without this kind of assistance, this kind of urban redevelopment could not happen.”

The development is expected to create 100 to 120 construction jobs during the building period and at least 300 permanent jobs.

The reporter clarifies the sales tax revenue increase; from $425,000 to “more than $2 million.” What is not clarified in the story is if this is before or after the tax incentives. What will the net increase in sales taxes be after the incentives and for how many years? Also, is this $2 million based on other stores being open besides the Schnuck’s and Lowe’s?

And we get to one of the favorites in economic development, job creation. “At least 300 permanent jobs.” Is that 300 in addition to the number from the old Schnuck’s on the site? Doubtful. Most likely it is a total of old jobs plus new. How is this figure calculated? How will we be able to measure the success of the project in say five years to determine if we need to continue with such incentives? We can look to past suburban style shopping center failures such as St. Louis Marketplace for answers. Loughborough Commons in less than 20 years will be the tired old stepchild of South City. Hopefully by then we can get the MetroLink expansion to come through on the adjacent tracks and take another crack at a true urban project that brings long-term economic stability, not just short term developer profits.

– Steve

 

Commentary on Maryland Plaza in West End Word

maryland plaza - 45.jpgThe new issue of the West End Word is available and it includes a commentary on Maryland Plaza by yours truly. Here is the opening paragraph:

Maryland Plaza, the continuation of Maryland Avenue between Euclid and Kingshighway, probably ranks as the most controversial street in all of St. Louis. Not even the costly and lengthy transformation of Washington Avenue a few years ago can compare. Maryland Plaza has a good 35 years worth of controversy.

Pick up a copy this week or read it online. What do you think of Maryland Plaza? Add your comments below and/or send an email to the West End Word editor.

For more images see my gallery of 40+ photos on Flickr.

– Steve

 

St. Louis Region Drops Again in Forbes Ranking

This year St. Louis ranked 31st among 40 metropolitan areas as “Best Places for Singles” according to Forbes magazine. Our best ranking was 14th in 2001 but since then we’ve continued to sink in the rankings, now falling into the bottom 10. It should be noted this is for the metropolitan area of St. Louis, not simply the City of St. Louis.

St. Louis on ForbesTo simplify things I compiled the chart, at left, showing where the St. Louis region ranks overall and in their various categories. As you can see we’ve been steadily dropping in the overall rankings since 2001. But a closer look reveals the good and the bad.

Below are each of the subcategories with the Forbes methodology in italics, followed by my thoughts on each.

Overall:

To determine the best city for singles, we ranked 40 of the largest continental U.S. metropolitan centers in seven different areas: nightlife, culture, job growth, number of singles, cost of living alone, coolness, and for the first time, online dating. Each metro is assigned a ranking of one to 40 in each category, based on quantitative data. All categories are weighted equally, with the exception of the number of singles, which received a double weighting. The ranks are then averaged to determine the final rankings.

We’ve got a lot of great things going on in the City of St. Louis right now with lofts and new restaurants and trendy bowling alleys opening but our region, we must accept, is boring. We are a region of “comfortable” suburban housing mixed with sterile office parks connected by massive highways. Tax base aside, the region is pretty much a drain on the City of St. Louis.

Culture:

Our cultural index is determined by the number of museums, pro sports teams and live theater and concert venues per capita, as well as the university population, in each metro. Data provided by AOL CityGuide and Montreal International.

I’ve yet to consider pro sports as having anything to do with “culture” but that is only one part of this criteria. This is the one section where we’ve been the most consistent over the years. Phoenix ranked #1.

Nightlife:

Nightlife is based on the number of restaurants, bars and nightclubs per capita in each standard metropolitan area. Data provided by AOL CityGuide.

This is a category where we are doing a lot of ups and downs from year to year. From the information provided I’m not sure if this is because our data is changing or if other city’s data is changing and thus moving everyone around in the rankings. Most likely it is a combination of both. Cincinnati ranked #1.

Singles:

The number of singles is based on the percentage of a metro’s population above the age of 15 that has never been married. Given the importance of this data, the singles category carries twice the weight of any other category. Data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Per the rankings this just isn’t a singles region, or perhaps many have been previously married. No surprise but New York ranked #1.

Job Growth:

Job growth rankings are determined by the projected percentage of job growth over the next five years for each metro. Data provided by Washington, D.C.-based Woods & Poole Economics.

Now we are getting to the real issue. Our job growth in this region sucks big time! The region must come together to evaluate why this is true and what are possible solutions. The old guard will continue to cite another bridge over the Mississippi River and other nonsense that simply keeps the politically connected sprawl machine working. While the city’s earnings tax may keep business out of the city, I’m not sure it would have an impact on the region’s job growth numbers. Whatever the reasons, this must be addressed. Las Vegas ranked #1.

Cost Of Living Alone:

Our proprietary Cost Of Living Alone index is determined by the average cost of a metro area’s apartment rent, a Pizza Hut pizza, a movie ticket and a six-pack of Heineken. Additionally, we factored in entry-level salary data. The majority of the raw data for the cost of living index was provided by Arlington, Va.-based ACCRA. Salary data provided by the New York-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

Ouch! I’m guessing here but I’d say our entry-level salaries have not kept pace with the average apartment rental rates. Either that or Pizza Hut has had to dramatically raise prices in St. Louis to cover the cost of hiring Queen Latifa for their commercials. Seriously though, while many may not think so I do believe we are building ourselves into a situation of higher and higher living costs relative to our incomes. Salaries simply have not kept pace with the increased property values, at least in the city. This is reflected in some very costly cities ranking ahead of us, including Seattle, NYC and San Francisco. Atlanta ranked #1.

Online Dating:

Due to the increasing popularity of online dating, we added this new measure to our methodology this year. The ranking is determined by the number of active profiles in each metro, per capita, on dating site Match.Com. Data provided by www.match.com.

OK everyone, get online so we can move up in the rankings for 2007. Yeah, right…. Boston ranked #1.

Coolness:

Coolness is determined by an area’s diversity and its number of creative workers (i.e., those whose jobs require creativity, such as artists, scientists, teachers and musicians). Kevin Stolarick, of Catalytix and Carnegie Mellon University, provided the data based on work he has done with Richard Florida, of George Mason University, and Gary Gates, of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

This is the one that shocked me, the ranking being much higher than I expected.

So what do you see in the numbers? Or what are they missing about our region that can’t be quantified?

– Steve

 

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