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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Commentary: The question of neighborhood grocery stores ought to permeate future growth discussions

In 1999, a key debate in Davis emerged--what the impact of a 40,000 square-foot Nugget at Oak Tree Plaza would produce. Some including Bill Donaldson, Eileen Samitz, and Bill Alexander argued that the production of new and larger grocery stores would doom the 25,000 square-foot neighborhood grocery store which had been the hallmark of the 1987 Davis Gneeral Plan.

As they wrote at the time in an April 18, 1999 article:
"Are we going to abandon our neighborhood center policies, which serve our community both practically and in our very human need for social interaction with our friends and neighbors?"
At the time they were roundly criticized for their opposition to the larger grocery stores, which now dominate the landscape in Davis, at the expense of the neighborhood grocery store.

Gone are the small grocery stores at University Mall, the Davis Manor, and now the Westlake Shopping Center.

Is this simply reactionary alarmism or is there a valid argument to be made that we ought to have a series of smaller, 20 to 25,000 square foot grocery stores serving their specific communities?

Instead of looking back to answer this question, let us look forward. The concept is smart growth. Smart growth looks to more dense, mixed use development, that seeks to reduce traffic and drive time through smart urban design practices.

We see this philosophy at work here in Davis when we talk about densification as opposed to sprawl. The idea is the more tightly compact people reside, the closer they are to the city centers and the less they will have to drive in order to do their shopping, drive to downtown, and go to work. This plan seeks to increase walkability and biking and to reduce the amount that people are forced to drive.

We seem to have the idea of densification down to a tee in our discussions.

As Kevin Wolf, chair of the Housing Element Steering Committee wrote a week and a half ago:
"Among my primary motivations to provide housing for the growing number of students and employees in town is to reduce the regional loss of habitat and prime agricultural land. When growth occurs in Davis, far less habitat and ag land is lost then if that growth is shifted to Woodland, Vacaville, Dixon or the suburbs around Sacramento. Davis has approximately twice the density compared to these areas, which means for every acre developed in Davis, two acres won’t be developed elsewhere."
We understand densification even if we disagree on how much we need to densify. We also understand the need for more energy efficient design.

But another facet of smart growth is mixed-use planning. The reason one needs that is that if you place commercial development within residential development, you can enable people to walk and bike to do the bulk of their shopping. And when it comes to shopping, the most frequent form is food shopping.

However, our grocery store policies are at odds with those of our smart design desires. The more we consolidate shopping in larger, 40,000 square foot grocery stores, the more we have violated this principal. The vast majority of people who shop at the two Safeways and the Nugget on Covell and Poleline, are people who are driving to get their food. As these stores have flourished, many of the neighborhood stores have disappeared.

One of the discussions that arose recently at the planning commission was what to do with Westlake Shopping Center where Ray"s and Food Fair had formerly resided. This is a smaller, 22,000 square foot store that had once served West Davis. Now, West Davis must drive 1.5 to 2 miles to the Safeway on Covell in order to do their shopping. Over the course of a year, that is a lot of additional driving. Meaning the emission of a lot of additional carbon. Hence big stores located in central areas rather than neighborhoods increase our carbon footprint.

But really it is worse than that. During the Target discussion we talked about the impact of big box retail, but one interesting discussion that occurred last year when Stacy Mitchell came to speak was the impact of big box grocery stores.

Let us compare the Co-Op to Safeway. The Co-Op is locally owned and operated. The profits go to those who reside in this community. Food is in part produced locally, particularly the produce. At the end of the day, the money is deposited into the local bank. Safeway on the other hand, has corporate ownership. All profits go to the Oakland corporate office. The money at the end of the day is deposited in a bank in Oakland. The produce and food are all shipped in from out of town. In other words, yes Safeway produces revenue and some tax base but there is a tremendous amount of leakage. The whole operation relies on trucking to import the produce and food and export the money. From a city economic standpoint it is inefficient. From an environmental standpoint is increases the carbon footprint. And the large central local requires the individuals to drive to the store.

The argument here is that policies that produce smaller and more locally owned grocery stores would be better for the local economy and the local environment. But in order to do that we would have to limit the size of grocery stores. Our policies that allowed 40,000 square foot grocery stores to move in have produced undesirable results.

The city and the owner of Westlake appeared ready and willing to actually continue and proliferate those harmful policies but fortunately the planning commission stepped in and at least temporarily delayed it. To Kevin Wolf's credit, he was one of those members of the public who came to the meeting and argued that we needed to hold out for a small grocery store.

If we are truly moving toward with this model of smart design, we cannot simply pick and choose which aspects we like, it has to be an entire package. We need to retain the character of our city by encouraging mixed-use planning and demanding that our city leaders look into ways to allow the neighborhood grocery store to remain competitive against the giant that we have already allowed to move in.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting