Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Food Access, Meet Community Development

Carrot image source
, House image source

By Greg

I received a lot of interest via email regarding my recent post on local food. One thing I neglected to do in my previous post was to put in a good word for the Greenworks Philadelphia plan, which includes this target goal: “Bring local food within 10 minutes of 75% of residents.” I look forward to seeing Philadelphia’s strategies for reaching this goal.

One of the programs that will probably help the city along is the state-wide Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (PFFI). This program was recently featured in The New York Times, profiling the new ShopRite in the West Philadelphia Parkside neighborhood. This financing program is extremely valuable in helping to make urban stores feasible. However, while the Parkside supermarket fulfills a valuable need in the community, I would argue that in another way it is far less successful — even damaging to other important goals.

The Times article profiled residents who walk to the new supermarket, but what the Times does not explain is that there are precious few people who can do this. The new supermarket is not an urban store in any sense of the word. It is a stand-alone, suburban-style structure in the middle of a brand new strip mall, surrounded by a sea of parking. Only a few dozen homes are within reasonable walking distance of the store, and even then residents have to walk through a gigantic parking lot.

Here's a view of the new Parkside shopping center:


And here is what the surrounding neighborhood looks like:

Many of these new supermarkets in Philadelphia are mainly accessible by car, and require a huge amount of space, designed at a scale that makes sense in the suburbs, but that is not appropriate for dense, urban communities. The stores are not very transit accessible, and do not contribute to uplifting older, struggling, commercial corridors. These supermarkets are physically in neighborhoods, but not part of communities.

Often in Philadelphia we seem to be satisfied to take what we can get — especially for poorer communities — rather than pushing for excellence. In the same article, the Times discusses New York City’s proposed zoning changes to include incentives for developers to integrate supermarkets in their mixed-use projects, and to reduce the parking requirements for urban supermarkets. At the same time New York is implementing its own food access financing program.

While New York is taking steps focusing on both local food access and making sure that new stores are seamless contributors to community vitality, Philadelphia has only gotten half of the equation right. Sure, we can argue that local food access is ultimately more important, and we should appreciate how far we have come. We can argue that Philly does not have the development market of New York; Supermarkets are certainly difficult to finance and sustain.

These are very real issues. However, I think we can do better if just set our mind to it.

Not too far from Parkside is the Fresh Grocer by the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. This supermarket got it all right: urban, walkable, built right up to the street edge, integrated into the surrounding area, parking stored in an upper-level garage. While the area around the Parkside supermarket is barren, the area around the Fresh Grocer is vibrant and booming. There are other examples of successful urban-style supermarkets in Philadelphia, such as a Trader Joe's in the ground floor of an apartment building at 22nd and Market, and the urban-style WholeFoods and SuperFresh on South Street.

Just because a neighborhood is poor, does not mean that it should have to settle for a half-baked supermarket. We should find the resources, the political will, and the incentives to bring supermarkets within close proximity to every community, and ensure that those stores can be positive contributors to community revitalization. These new stores should be a stimulus for reviving commercial corridors, and should be built for residents who rely on walking and transit. If built right, a supermarket can provide local food access and also act as a positive force for reviving communities.

Too often in urban policy we tend to separate issues, and then frame them as if they were in conflict with each other. If we want to provide both supermarkets and generators for community revitalization, then Philadelphia needs to set the bar higher, make new policies, and work harder to truly give our neighborhoods the resources they need for a healthy and prosperous future.

1 comment:

Dan Pohlig said...

Great post Greg and an issue that I remember devoting a lot of thought to during the 2003 mayor's race. (Almost as much as I did to the LOVE Park issue ;))

My only nit to pick is your characterization of the Super Fresh on South Street as a good example. It may be a less bad example than the Parkside development or the Acme around the corner from me at Passyunk and Reed but it certainly isn't great from (this amateur's understanding of) a design perspective. It's ugly, creates a huge wall of brick on the South Street face and adds little to the area (other than being a supermarket, which I don't want to downplay). Even the bike rack is this useless piece of steel that is too tall to drape a bike over, has a wide metal bar on top and too short to fit a bike under. Though thankfully, it does have the parking out of the way and upstairs.

The Whole Foods, on the other hand, deserves all the credit you give it. It engages the sidewalk more with its display windows. It has outdoor seating and windows that look into the indoor seating area for eating prepared foods and its parking garage somehow seems less obtrusive.

I wish they could all get it right like that. I frequently walk to the Acme on Passyunk and find myself wishing that it had more pedestrian entrances, just to the parking lot. It's inaccessible from the piece of Reed that cuts left at 11th and the fence between it and the S.P.O.A.C. keeps walkers from being able to cut the corner at Passyunk and Dickinson. Total FAIL.