Corporate Welfare

Closing the Grocery Gap

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You may have heard of the "grocery gap" between suburbs and the inner city–the more limited availability of access to big grocery stores in urban areas. Continuing my dig through some sadly neglected, but very useful, old magazines and professional journals that have been piling up, I came across this article on the topic from the April issue of Governing. While mostly concerned with a Pennsylvania state House members attempts to gin up government money and public-private partnerships to get more grocery stores in the inner city, and other state and local governments trying to emulate him, the article does point out:

What's become increasingly clear in the past few years is that the problems of running an urban supermarket aren't a result of things going wrong after the store opens. The issue is the myriad obstacles that stand in the way of getting the store built.

As obvious as the needs are, and as well-documented as the opportunities for profit may be, it takes forever to get an urban supermarket deal done — 10 years in the case of the first Pathmark in Newark; nearly as long before Publix opened its doors in the inner-city Atlanta neighborhood of East Lake. One reason is simple bureaucratic clumsiness. "Urban environments have an arcane development process and a lot of companies don't have the stomach for it," says Buzz Roberts, who has run a supermarket assistance program for the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. "You can do two or three stores in the suburbs in the time it takes to do one in the inner city."

Whole article here.

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  1. Paging joe… You’ve gotta get in here ASAP and explain why living in an urban area – where laws and regulations make it tough to even open up a grocery store – is vastly better than it is to live in suburban “sprawl.”

    Or maybe joe could just sell it as “a crappier urban way of life is the duty of every American, because the removal of sprawl is the new ‘American Dream.'”

  2. rob

    Obviously, all those regulations are there to preserve your living environment. [snark]

  3. Wrong. Proper planning of mixed-use neighborhoods in urban environments is far superior to unchecked growth of sprawling suburban McMansions and the long commutes to work.

    Or something 😉

  4. I’ll bet joe subscribes to Governing.

    The problem isn’t strictly urban vs suburban. Suburbs can get pretty crappy with their planning and zoning, too.

  5. My experience of living in several urban areas is that the population can be divided into two groups; poor people who really suffer from the lack of access to big well run grocery stores and rich yuppies in the gentrified areas (which usually sit next to or mixed in with the poor areas) who have the money to drive to the suburbs to shop or shop at high end specialty stores like Whole Foods or Bread and Circus. The problem is that the second group invariably wants to “keep the neighborhood atmosphere” and stop at nothing to prevent a large efficient grocery store from being built. All of which of course is done in the name of protecting those fabled “mom and pop” stores that have been ripping off the locals with high prices and lousy selections for years.

  6. Rob,

    Glad you’re enjoying your suburban space. Why anyone would want to live there is beyond me, but I’m sure my NY apartment puzzles you just as much. To each their own.

    John,

    Not sure what cities you’ve lived in, but I’ve never heard of anyone driving all the way to the suburbs just to go food shopping. My neighborhood has three of those high-end specialty stores to go along with two regular-old grocery stores, all within walking distance of my apartment.

    Of course, with Fresh Direct available, nobody in NY has to go farther than the Internet to go food shopping anyway. Note to Rob: encouragement to laziness is one of the things we love about living in the urban areas.

  7. These “arcane” regulations wouldn’t be necessary if the corporations that run these supermarkets actually helped the community, instead of just preying on the poor with low wage jobs and aisle upon aisle of junk food.

  8. Dan, you’re not even trying anymore.

  9. You’re absolutely right Dan. Those damn oreos tried to pin me down by the candy bars. Luckily I grabbed a small child and beat back the mass of trans fat, escaping with my health intact, but just barely. I still wake up in cold sweats thinking about all the guys that didn’t make it.

  10. C’mon, Dan T.! You can do better.

  11. he more limited availability of access to big grocery stores in urban areas

    I can’t speak for other parts of the country, but here in Chicago there isn’t really a lack of grocery stores — Jewel and Dominick’s (albertson’s and safeway subsidiaries) are all over the city. There is definately a lack of big box discounters / supercenters that sell groceries and electronics and clothes under one roof, but there are grocery stores in the “urban” areas that are readily accessible either via foot or a short ride on public transportation (or by car)

    Another problem (and I didn’t read the article – so it may be addressed) is difficulty in acquiring the amount of land needed for a 30,000 sq ft. for these giant stores. (Although eminent domain has made this easier these days)

    By nature urban areas aren’t very condusive to stores / businesses that require huge amounts of land and parking.

  12. Not sure what cities you’ve lived in, but I’ve never heard of anyone driving all the way to the suburbs just to go food shopping.

    Detroit, Michigan. Yes, it’s really true. 10-15% off your grocery bill is worth it. Not to mention the quality difference in meat and produce.

  13. …but I’ve never heard of anyone driving all the way to the suburbs just to go food shopping.

    It happens in Chicago. That was one of the big reasons there was a push to get Big Box retailers and grocers in to underserved areas of the city. To get to the nearest Jewel, Dominicks, or Cub foods (the big 3 in Chicago), many minority residents would literally have to drive or take a bus to a nearby suburb.

  14. Definitely! DEFINITELY! Is that so freakin’ hard?

  15. “Glad you’re enjoying your suburban space. Why anyone would want to live there is beyond me, but I’m sure my NY apartment puzzles you just as much. To each their own.” – Brian24

    To each his own, indeed. I’ve got no beef at all with your preference to live in NY, it’s really joe’s disdain for anyone who chooses to live “in sprawl”… in other words, anywhere beyond the grasp of he and his fellow city planners.

    “Note to Rob: encouragement to laziness is one of the things we love about living in the urban areas.” – Brian24

    Shhh… Don’t tell joe – he thinks living in urban areas means you’re less sedentary. Me, I enjoy a good run through my local park, or a stroll through my neighborhood.

    But after a full day of work, based on the location I’d have to live in driven by rent expenses of a NYC apartment I could actually afford… Well, sadly, I’d probably be safer shutting and barring the doors by sundown like Charlton Heston in “Omega Man.”

    That would probably cause me to be more sedentary than my non-urban living space currently does.

  16. J sub D,

    I am also from Detroit, and never mind the savings (which is true), hell 10 – 15% added to your grocery bill plus gas is a small price to pay to avoid what passes for a grocery store in the city. Imagine the shenanigans Apu pulls at the Quickie Mart writ on the scale of a supermarket, and getting food poisoning in real life is just not as funny as when it happens to Homer. This really is no exaggeration. The local paper(s) ran a story about this recently and many of these independent groceries have dozens if not hundreds of health code violations annually. What’s the city going to do? If you shut them down the poor (~ 50% of city residents) will have nowhere to shop other than the corner liquor store.

  17. Not sure what cities you’ve lived in, but I’ve never heard of anyone driving all the way to the suburbs just to go food shopping.

    Also extremely true in Houston. I live downtown and generally drive to the Montrose or Memorial City areas to shop.

    Houston has pretty much no zoning laws, so this would tend to support the big-chunk-of-land theory rather than regulation complexity. Devoting a few hundred thousand square feet to a parking lot is cost prohibitive in an urban area.

    Also, I think those downtown-living hipster types like Brian24 and myself would prefer to walk rather than try to find a parking space if we’re shopping locally, and speaking for myself I’m too damn lazy to carry bags of groceries rather than plop them in the car.

  18. This is what amazed me when the Winn Dixie opened on N. Rampart in New Orleans. It was years and years in the process. Sadly, it has been closed since Katrina and it appears that the developer will demolish it for a 900 unit condo tower complex, furthering gentrification of the area. The Winn Dixie in question is the only supermarket in the “Vieux Carre”, everything else is a hodgpodge of mom&pop style grocers known more for carry out sandwiches and liquor selection than fresh produce (notable exception is the overpriced french market).

    Standard libertarian disclaimer, not calling for government intervention, yadda, yadda, yadda. Though I will note that said developer did have to get a zoning change in order to proceed with the condo project, due to both commercial vs. residential and height restrictions. Not sure if that is a case of government intervention or government cowing to special interests, but there it is.

  19. 10-15% off your grocery bill is worth it. Not to mention the quality difference in meat and produce.

    Funny. Around Chicago, the better grocery stores are in or close to the city. Farther out, you get Jewel & Dominick’s (crappy & overpriced), Cub (crappy & cheap), or Whole Foods (good, but expensive). In the city & closer suburbs, you get all the butcher shops & produce stands that sell better quality for cheaper.

  20. So, if you brought a copy of Reason into contact with a copy of Governing, would they annihilate each other in a gargantuan flash of light, leaving nothing behind but a smoldering crater?

  21. Speaking of Whole Foods and Reason, has anyone actually seen an issue in one of the stores? I’ve looked in the past to no avail.

    You’d think the supposed stealth-libertarian CEO who gets regularly interviewed in the pages here would at least have the common courtesy of a reach-around.

    (The’re rather light on gun magazines as well.)

  22. Not sure what cities you’ve lived in, but I’ve never heard of anyone driving all the way to the suburbs just to go food shopping.

    Pittsburgh, PA.

  23. Somehow I don’t think Joe was talking about blighted inner city mean streets when comparing that life to the ‘burbs.

  24. I live in a relatively safe neighborhood in an urban area which has neighborhoods where the crime is terrifying. The “corporate” grocery stores have for the longest time declined to open in those areas because of the added security costs in addition to the difficulty of getting approvals. Activists from the underserved neighborhoods are forever criticizing them for this, usually attributing it to their corporate hard-heartedness. As for the “yuppie” grocery stores (Whole Foods, etc.) of which we have many in the area, always lauded as socially just and sensitive to “the community”–well, the crime-ridden nieighborhoods don’t have any of those stores either. Yet, the activists never target them with the criticism they reserve for the “corporate” stores.

  25. Actually, rob, my city got a large grocery store built in short order in the middle of an urban renewal area just a couple of years ago.

    And even you are intelligent to realize that urban development patterns and overly-complicated permitting processes are independent variables.

    Well, maybe you’re not, but everyone else reading this is.

  26. John,

    Once again, you’re talking out of your ass.

    Gentrifying yuppies are always trying to get grocery stores built in the neighborhoods they move to. It would be nice to see you actually know something once in a while.

  27. ‘to live “in sprawl”… in other words, anywhere beyond the grasp of he and his fellow city planners.’

    Sure, rob, we all know how free and unregulated development is in the sprawl-burbs.

    Well, everyone but you, that is.

  28. As another Detroiter I can report I am anxiously awaiting a decent supermarket in the downtown area, and I suspect, unless some planning council screws it up, that one will open in the next year or so, because the downtown area is filling up now with young yuppies and empty nesters moving into the hundreds of ‘lofts’ being built out of old office buildings. Meanwhile there is the Eastern Market, open every morning, where farmers bring their produce. Can’t get cereal or cleaning supplies there, though.
    (if this gets posted twice, apologies–the squirrels seem to have returned, and now they’re on strike…)

  29. “Jeff S. | November 28, 2006, 6:40pm | #

    I live in a relatively safe neighborhood in an urban area which has neighborhoods where the crime is terrifying.”

    Shh, don’t tell rob.

    He can’t tell the difference.

    My God, there are negroes and rental units on this block! Quick, bar the door like in Omega Man!

  30. Joe,

    In my city, in my neighborhood, there are Negroes, rental units, but no bars.

    In my city, in the neighborhoods with the really bad crime, there are Negroes, rental units, and lots and lots of bars.

    Why is it that the gentrifying yuppies are able to convince grocery stores to open in their previously unserved neighborhoods where the non-gentrifying non-yuppies failed?

  31. Chicagotom: Not in Hyde Park there isn’t. Two supermarkets for the whole neighborhood, plus a vegetable store. It’s a real drag.

  32. Jeff S,

    Do you really think rob would ever slow his car down enough in an urban neighborhood to notice details like whether there are bars on the windows?

  33. “Gentrifying yuppies are always trying to get grocery stores built in the neighborhoods they move to. It would be nice to see you actually know something once in a while.”

    As usual you live in complete denial of reality. The gentry want specialty stores they do not want your typical large Kroger or gasp Wall mart. I have lived in Washington DC, Atlanta, Kansas City and San Antonio and it was that way in all of those cities except San Antonio. But don’t listen to me or the like 10 people on this thread from various parts of the country who said the same thing. No, you are Joe and your reality rules.

    I don’t mind that you disagree with me, but why do you have to lower yourself to personal insults? Are you just that big of a petty miserable asshole?

  34. So you’re changing the subject from “grocery stores” to “Wall Mart?”

    Nice one.

    Anyway, you might not have noticed, but most of the people in the thread disagreed with you.

  35. “I don’t mind that you disagree with me, but why do you have to lower yourself to personal insults? Are you just that big of a petty miserable asshole?”

    The consistency with which you poison the well, always in the service of your ideology, is irritating.

  36. Hey, rob of the suburban frontier,

    How about you post a link to your sprawl-ville’s web site, so we can see the great libertarian zoning code that’s in place in the Wonderbreadville suburb you live in, and judge for ourselves just how “out of the grasp of planners” you are.

    You’re so brainwashed, you live in some dead guy’s socially-engineering experiment, and stand on the barricaides proclaiming it to be the most natural expression of the invisible hand. The truth is, the sprawl you defend is an old, failed model imposed by a discreditted generation of planners. I can understand those defenders who have a direct economic stake in the status quo, but those of you who continue to adhere to a failed ideology are worthy of all the respect of a 21st century Stalinist.

  37. I’ve never heard of anyone driving all the way to the suburbs just to go food shopping

    Guess you’re not from the “Rust Belt”, where a city of 300,000 with no shopping whatsoever is common.

  38. Joe,

    Meet the new discredited generation of planners. Same as the old discredited generation of planners.

    I have found that the gentrifying yuppies want the “socially responsible” grocery stores, not the “corporate” ones. Safeway, Kroger: bad. Whole Foods, Molly Stones: good.

  39. I lived near the imfamous Walmart in New Orleans were the cops stole stuff on video. The store really helped poor black folks more then anything else. As a white yuppie myself we crossed the crecent city connection ( to the suburabs) to go food shoping all the time before it opened. After it opened our tax money stayed in town. Cheap food within walking distance is a good thing for poor people.

  40. I don’t know much about local politics here in AZ, but I can tell you we’re a nightmare of sprawl, and I have to assume joe is correct in that most of these communities are not some free-market miracle. In fact, most of the time, they advertise the “planned” part of planned-community. Dell Webb is one of the big developers here – is he one of the dead guys you’re talking about?

    I actually live in Tempe near the University, and the homes here are old and the neighbourhood has a real nice vibe. The most un-suburbia-like place in all of Phoenix, and I like it like that.

    As for grocery stores in downtown Phoenix – I don’t think we have a big problem with that…Phx also has a lot of hispanics, and there are a lot of stores which cater to that population, including grocery stores, and those areas are sometimes, if not often, poorer.

    Not to mention all the convenience stores (like circle K, Quiktrip, 7-Eleven and smaller ones) where you can feed yourself and get milk for kid in a pinch…anyway, I think we’re well-fed all over the city.

  41. The stores that used to be considered supermarkets when I was a kid are no longer considered such by many. Back then, a self service grocery that was usually bigger than the old-fashioned ask-for-it-at-the-counter grocery defined it as a supermarket. Then a few decades ago, the French pioneered much bigger supermarkets called (temporarily) hypermarkets. Now those are what most people outside of NYC tend to think of when they use the word “supermarket”. Chicago managed to get those big ones early, but here in New York City our old supermarkets are no longer thought of by outsiders as super.

  42. I live in a relatively safe neighborhood in an urban area which has neighborhoods where the crime is terrifying.”

    Shh, don’t tell rob.

    He can’t tell the difference.

    My God, there are negroes and rental units on this block! Quick, bar the door like in Omega Man!

    You shouldn’t make light of this, joe. As you may remember, I ended up living in a high crime part of an urban neighborhood. Things got worse and worse until there was about a month of hell where I thought I would be attacked by the drug dealer in the basement.

    I moved to a different neighborhood, still urban, bit more rent, and the crime problems here seem to be as low as the burbs (fingers crossed).

    You generally come off well, but when you say that crime victims are racist because the black on white crimes they suffer make them feel angry, I just don’t think you are being realistic about how people feel about being victimized, and victimized in a way where the numbers would tend to show “de facto discrimination” in the victim selection process.

  43. Further to previous:

    I am also extremely close to an urban Wal*Mart and supermarket which is very helpful and cuts down on my driving tremendously. FWIW.

    Wl*Mart still sucks, but what you gonna do.

  44. “Jeff S. | November 28, 2006, 11:29pm | #

    Joe,

    Meet the new discredited generation of planners. Same as the old discredited generation of planners.”

    The wonderful thing about statements like this is that you don’t even have to know anything about the subject at hand to make them. Just lean against the wall, pout a little, blow out a stream of smoke, and say “It’s all just bullshit, man.”

    I believe the term is “too cool for school.”

  45. Sam Franklin,

    I made it clear that I WAS distinguishing between high- and low-crime urban neighborhoods. My point was to tweak those who can’t tell the difference.

    And for all the guff Wal Mart takes – much of it deserved – they have developed a highly-successful urban model that fits in with the ideals of smart growth.

  46. I lived in central Philadelphia for two years as a grad student in the late 1990s making about $12,000 a year. I spent $40 a week on groceries bought from local greengrocers, small supermarkets and occasionally big supermarkets. I had a perfectly reasonable diet: lots of fresh fruit and veg, meat 2-3 times per week. I’m completely baffled by the assertions that a) there is a shortage of grocery shopping in cities and b) healthy choices are unavailable for the urban poor. Philly can be a nasty place, but only a complete moron couldn’t find a grocery store there.

  47. Having read all the comments, I should caveat my earlier statement. New York is likely different in that many residents (including me) do not own cars, and therefore could not drive to the suburbs to shop if they wanted to. Further incentive to build grocery stores in urban areas, at least the upscale ones; it’s the only way to capture that business. I’m sure the cost/benefit analysis changes if the urban residents have cars.

    Also, no massive parking lots required in Manhattan; grocery business is almost entirely walk-up. That means you have to have delivery service as well, of course, but it’s easier to find high school kids in need of a job than 100,000 square feet of empty space.

  48. Brian 24,

    Virtually all cities of any size have neighborhoods with low rates of automobile access. The difference is, in New York, the middle class and rich people don’t have cars, either.

  49. Joe: “Meet the new discredited generation of planners. Same as the old discredited generation of planners.” The wonderful thing about statements like this is that you don’t even have to know anything about the subject at hand to make them.

    The old planners build large areas of houses on cul-de-sacs and prohibited any “commercial” development with zoning laws.

    The new planners build somewhat smaller areas of houses empasizing pedestrian access to “local” stores which can never have the kind of selection available in a supermarket. They use zoning to exclude popular stores they disapprove of, as in fast food.

    The “new” is just as bad as the “old.” BTW, I have a masters in architecture and a BS in sociology.

  50. Larry A,

    “The new planners build somewhat smaller areas of houses empasizing pedestrian access to “local” stores which can never have the kind of selection available in a supermarket.”

    Actually, no. The new planners provide pedestrial access to stores which also have road and, ideally, transit access as well. There are no planners advocating for stores that have only pedestrian access, or are located to be exclusively patronized by the immediate neighborhood.

    You should check out some Peter Calthorpe books sometime.

    “They use zoning to exclude popular stores they disapprove of, as in fast food.” That sort of thing comes from politicians, not planners.

  51. “The new planners build somewhat smaller areas of houses empasizing pedestrian access to “local” stores which can never have the kind of selection available in a supermarket.” (emphasis added)

    Actually, no. The new planners provide pedestrial access to stores which also have road and, ideally, transit access as well. There are no planners advocating for stores that have only pedestrian access, or are located to be exclusively patronized by the immediate neighborhood. (emphasis added)

    Joe, I’m not following your denial. What’s the incompatibility of your response with Larry’s claim?

  52. The incompatibility isn’t with the area of your empasis – the part about empasizing pedstrian access to the stores – but with the second part of his statement, that we are planning around ‘”local” stores which can never have the kind of selection available in a supermarket.”

    In fact, New Urbanists are planning for pedestrian access to corner stores, which are also planned to receive some patronage from those from outside the neighborhood; but we are also planning for pedestrian access to city-wide and regional shopping centers, for which walk-up business from the immediate neighborhood will be a second-tier source of revenue.

    And that’s just for town-scale developments. By expanding the area in which truly urban development is allowed to occur, New Urbanists are working to increase the number of pedestrian-accessed grocery stores which receive enough foot traffic to offer the selection found in a more familiar supermarket-behind-a-parking-lot.

    Larry’s claim that this generation of planners is working to eliminate supermarkets – grocery stores with a large enough clientelle to justify the size and selection of a 1990s supermarket – is simply untrue.

  53. Nobody walks in L.A.

  54. “They use zoning to exclude popular stores they disapprove of, as in fast food.” That sort of thing comes from politicians, not planners.

    Planners don’t have to be politicians to keep their jobs? They have to satisfy their bosses, who more often than not *are* politicians. Moreover, they usually share the political leanings of their bosses, or they wouldn’t have been hired. I’ve met lots of planners that are very much ultra-liberal partisans that use their power to eliminate or block any business they deem undesirable. They don’t try to hide it either.

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