There’s something jarring about going back to a place where you used to live and discovering that “your” grocery store has been shuttered and abandoned. There are a lot of retail stores closing these days, but grocery stores tend to be more personal than most. We take them for granted until they’re gone and when they go they leave a big hole in the community.
I was back in suburban Indianapolis last week and on the way out of town I met my daughter for dinner. That gave me an opportunity to see “our” old grocery store. It finally succumbed after years of bad management decisions and an inability or unwillingness to compete based on the new rules of retail.
The first thing that struck me as I drove up was the empty parking lot. What an epic waste of space. It’s bigger than the store. Juxtaposed against the adjacent neighborhood, it looks like you could put 15-20 homes on that land. I also noticed the lack of sidewalks. Here in Iowa, sidewalks are everywhere. No sidewalks and acres of parking make non-motorized access a challenge. I guess that’s why I never noticed a bike here.
Even so, this is one of the better commercial developments in town. There’s access from a lightly traveled street on the backside which makes it easier for cyclists and pedestrians, all things being equal. It also wasn’t out along the highway on the edge of town. If you think about it, local people are a grocery store’s bread and butter. There’s absolutely no reason to build on the main road, but that’s where many suburban stores are these days. That decision alone virtually forces people to come by car.
It is slowly occurring to me that the way commercial sites are developed discourages people from accessing them by any means other than a personal automobile. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be parking, but how much and where you put it matters a great deal. Is it possible for pedestrians and bicyclists to safely access the development? It wasn’t there. The three access roads from the rear and right side were virtual racetracks. Access from the front required one to navigate the parking lot. None of these scenarios were ideal.
That’s why I love the new Hy-Vee store in Jefferson. At first glance, it appears that there’s almost as much parking here as there is at the Marsh store in Brownsburg but the positioning is completely different. The speed limit on the surrounding streets is 25 mph. The store is embedded in the town’s grid, so people are already traveling more slowly. There are sidewalks on both sides of the store and no long access roads. It’s just a few feet from the street to the three bike racks. It’s safe and easy for cyclists and pedestrians. Last time I was here, I saw an 80ish woman on a 3-wheeler. That’s something you wouldn’t ever see in the burbs. It’s also easy for motorists. This design works for everyone, regardless of their mode of transit.
And so I’m glad that we’re starting to see more and more of this type of development, even in places like suburban Indy where speed and car convenience still rules the day. Just down the road from the abandoned Marsh store, developers are building the town’s first mixed use, high density development. Since the end of World War II, our built environment has been focused on the convenience of motorists at the expense of everyone else. That’s starting to change. The payoff is safer, more livable communities. Who doesn’t want that?