Thursday, December 29, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-21: Rounding out the year...

...with some thoughts on urban supermarkets and the swinging of the proverbial pendulum

Herewith, ladies and gentlemen, this weblog's final post for 2011 and another installment from our wide-ranging search of the available media for interesting articles about the urban fabric and its condition (a.k.a., "They report it, we give it the once over..."). RTUF's intrepid research efforts found an article in yesterday's Boston Globe about certain national supermarket chains discovering urban markets and what that does and doesn't do to their typical store formats and models. The article, entitled "City supermarkets shrink to fit, Whole Foods in Jamaica Plain is latest to try a smaller space," is not comprehensive, but it does introduce a couple of key aspects of the pendulum that is currently swinging toward walkable neighborhoods and tightly-knit urban fabric.

The first aspect is that the suburbs are, generally speaking, already "over-retailed" (i.e., there are already enough outlets of all kinds to serve the needs of the existing population for years to come). As a result, national retail chains of all kinds, including supermarkets, are seeking growth and expansion opportunities in other places, especially urban areas. The second aspect is that national supermarket chains - ranging from prototypical big-boxers like WalMart and Wegmans down to Whole Foods - are experiencing some trepidation and adjustment anxiety as they scale down their standard 100,000 SF+ formats to fit tighter, more centrally-located footprints. The Whole Foods example used is the new location in Jamaica Plain, right next door to God's Country (a.k.a., Roslindale), where they replaced the former "Hi-Lo" foods, a locally-owned outlet that catered especially to that neighborhood's Latino community. Having recently been in that store, I will say that it was a bit different to be in a Whole Foods and not see their typically phenomenal butcher counter out in the open. That said, Whole Foods is certainly no stranger to central Boston locations, as they've been operating near Symphony Hall and in the West End for some time. I'm not too worried that they're going to do OK in JP too.

The article's hand-wringing over how supermarket outfits normally geared to large footprints and suburban parking standards can  possibly fit into - gasp - less than 40,000 SF of floor area put me in mind of my own high school days on the East Side of Manhattan. Now, I'll stipulate that New York is an outlier here as it is in many things. But there is little doubt that supermarkets in the big city of broken dreams and shattered romances have survived and thrived for decades in footprints far smaller than 40,000 SF. As a result, there is a part of me that is just astounded to hear people who ought to know better speak about any store that is less than an acre in floor area as if it were a pushcart. Our apartment on 86th Street between 1st Avenue and York Avenue had three supermarkets less than block away -- a D'Agostino's on First Avenue, a Gristede's on York, and a Grand Union across First Avenue on 86th Street. None of these stores had parking and none could have topped 20,000 SF, yet they had everything a supermarket could be reasonably expected to have. If someone really wants to know how to do profitable urban supermarket operations, the smartest thing to do is walk into a D'Agostino's in Manhattan and take notes. It is hardly as exotic as the article makes it sound.

PS Best wishes on a happy and healthy 2012 to everyone from RTUF. LOVE YOUR PLACE!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-20: Appleton Mills comes back to life... the Hamilton Canal District's redevelopment gets underway in earnest

Photo 1: Looking from Jackson Street, across the Hamilton Canal bridge.

Photo 2: Looking along Hamilton Canal from the bridge.

Photo 3: Looking back across the Appleton courtyard, toward the underpass
and bridge beyond.

Photo 4: Looking along the new street ("Street D" in the master plan).

Photo 5: Sidewalk with tree yard.

Photo 6: Looking along the Pawtucket Canal,
with former mill wall remnants.

The Location: 219 Jackson Street, Lowell, MA (LINK).

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2011.

The Story: The redevelopment of the Hamilton Canal District in Lowell has been mentioned on this weblog before, albeit somewhat in passing, in the final blog post of 2009 (Blog Post No. 2009-9: Breaking with the early pattern of posts...). There, the focus was on the advance of form-based coding in New England. In this post, we come to praise the resurrection of the Appleton Mills, from its virtual demolition-by-neglect in the years after it closed as a working site for manufacturing - at one point, immediately before construction began, the floors were literally falling in on each other - to the great work done by Trinity Financial and Icon Architecture at the request of the City of Lowell to redevelop the former mill into affordable and artist housing.

Image of the Appleton Mills building (in distance) at the time of groundbreaking in 2009.
Credit: City of Lowell, MA.

As noted in the 2009 post, I worked on behalf of my law firm as the city's special counsel to help produce and ensure the consistency of the form-based code for the Hamilton Canal District with Massachusetts law. To be quite frank, it is tremendously rewarding to see the high quality of the as-restored Appleton Mills residential complex, the first phase of the redevelopment enabled by that code. The new courtyard space and the streetscape of the new street are exactly the kind of thoughtful, detailed, and satisfying exterior spaces that we should look for in every piece of new construction we do as a region and nation.

The master plan below shows that much more is to come, including further residential, commercial, and mixed-use buildings, a new courtyard area that the Appleton Mills reconstruction has already partially completed, a new public square and small park, and a multi-story parking garage with street-facing retail at the ground level. If all goes well, there is even the possibility for something near and dear to your RTUF correspondent's reformed transportation planner's heart: a link from the existing historic trolley system from the city's university and the minor league ballpark through downtown Lowell and the district to the MBTA's Lowell commuter rail station and the city's major bus terminal. The Hamilton Canal District is both a tremendous mixed-use development location on its own, with three intersecting canals and great historic architectural bones, and a critical piece of infill between the heart of Lowell's downtown and the aforementioned commuter rail/regional bus station. We will continue to check in on the district's redevelopment as new phases come on line.

Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: No sketch needed this time. Instead, see below and the illustrative master plan prepared by Icon Architecture for Trinity Financial, their client, and the City of Lowell. The Appleton Mills restoration shown here is actually on two parcels -- marked 6 and 7 on the master plan.