Somewhere Between Blight and Gentrification...

Is there a happy medium between the run-down liquor store and the gourmet shop? 

What is the best form of Main Street retail, as people move back to the city and re-emergent neighborhoods acquire shops and services that were once lacking?

I've lamented the disproportionate number of liquor stores in San Diego neighborhoods that are otherwise revitalizing.  Even though these shops also sell convenience items and provide an honest living for their owners, they do little to enhance street life. They could offer much more to their respective communities, both in terms of product selection and storefront design.   Given their centralized locations, it's a shame that they hide from the street (the corner of Main Street, in this case):




These would not have been acceptable retail outlets to earlier generations who relied on streetcars and walking for shopping.  To reduce vehicle-miles traveled, the current generation needs easy access to a central market, at minimum.

An ideal replacement for the omnipresent liquor store is an affordable merchant that carries fresh groceries and appeals to a diversity of shoppers.  By serving the daily needs of residents, it could become a gathering place that activates the street and defines the neighborhood.  What sometimes appears instead is an upscale business that screams "gentrification", a term that has come to be regarded as an undesirable flip side to blight.   Such businesses, on their own, do not sufficiently rejuvenate small retail districts because they offer too limited a product selection for an exclusive group of people.   When the local store sells only hand-crafted chocolates, residents will need daily trips to stores outside of the neighborhood. 

The best retail mix is often found in cities and towns that are well connected to a college or university - perhaps because students and professors have a limited budget but selective tastes.  Students are also more likely to not own a car, so groceries and good restaurants need to be within walking or biking distance.  A number of university towns boast cafes, used book stores, ethnic restaurants, grocery stores, office supplies, pharmacies, and specialty food shops - all affordable and all walkable from campus and residential neighborhoods.

Within these larger or established retail districts, there is a place for everything, including liquor stores and exclusive boutiques.  But on Main Street, particularly when it's the only show in town, the central market should live up to its name.




Diana DeRubertis is an environmental writer focusing on the urban planning field.



Make liquor stores more attractive...

One reason for all the liquor stores is that it is a highly profitable, low-maintenance, entry-level business, attractive to immigrants who often own and operate these businesses. On the other hand, fresh produce (like groceries in general) has low markup, very short shelf life (usually one day), and requires constant TLC, along with refrigerated display areas, etc (more bother and expense). Selling produce also requires hiring another employee (unless it’s a family-run business), since the guy at the cash register, even in a small shop, is unlikely able to look after the fruits and vegetables. Beer, wine, and liquor, by contrast, are easy to store and display, and have an almost unlimited shelf life.

I agree, though, that some of these liquor stores (like the one you show) could shed the ghetto look and have more inviting facades facing the street. There are plenty of small liquor shops which are quite attractive and look good on any Main Street. That is something planners could easily regulate by way of design guidelines. Since liquor stores need to be licensed, their number and location should be easy to regulate (by the State Liquor Control Board or whatever) if there is political will to do so.


Business hours

The challenge of running a neighborhood business is getting enough customers. If a business is located in a largely residential neighborhood, most of their customers will be at work from early in the morning until 6 in the evening or later. This leaves only a few evening hours to earn a whole day's worth of revenue. The only people home during the day are retirees, late/early shift workers, and people who are unemployed are disabled. Most of these patrons will be on a restricted budget and will want a store that carries very cheap products. As a result, stores in the neighborhood will carry cheap items that don't appeal to the higher-income 9-to-5 workers, and will try to keep their overhead low with extra security to prevent loss and not much decoration or upkeep.

In much higher income (gentrified) neighborhoods you have more high-income households with a stay-at-home parent or adult who can supply some daytime business, and more people who control their own schedule (professors, consultants).

I think the best solution is to change the neighborhood. Or more accurately to mix them. A wider mix of incomes. A wider mix of ages so retirees can provide daytime vitality rather than being segregated in senior housing developments. And a wider mix of uses. If there are some small offices and other businesses around the stores, their employees will be a new source of daytime business.

Pretentious planners

I agree that much more should be done to transform liquor stores into truly healthy, neighborhood convenience stores. As one poster pointed out, design guidelines could accomplish much if they focused on things like signage, colors, and windows and door treatments. Guidelines could also help n'hood stores to enhance street life/experience by allowing for exterior tables, chairs, landscaping, etc. But because these liquor stores are often found in marginalized communities, planning agencies give them little thought, due mostly to their arrogance and pretentious attitudes toward such uses. The Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, for instance, focuses nearly all of it efforts on new development at the fringes of its jurisdiction. While it touts having a "green" approach to planning, it doesn't do much to apply this thinking within its older communities. Doing more to de-marginalize these communities by developing and applying ordinances and design guidelines that foster clean, healthy, and aesthetically lively commercial environments may go a long ways toward promoting sustainable n'hoods.

Liquor stores

Liquor stores are all over San Diego. They are common in marginalized neighborhoods and previously marginalized neighborhoods (which actually describes most of urban San Diego) but also in other areas. I'm not sure why this city has so many or why they do so well here.

In Transition

Dressing up the storefront of an undesirable business is a band aid. It's the anti-civic mindset that prevents progress. Changing the attitudes of business owners is difficult but not impossible. The community needs to work with the police, elected officials and other investors (universities, churches, etc.). A willing relative of the problem business can also be influential in the process since many owners have no desire to engage government staff or officials.

In our community the police started a 'banned customer list' signed by various proprietors or land owners. Municipalities should review and update their zoning/code enforcement ordinances, neighborhoods can form stronger alliances with their community police officers, and a few trips down to city hall public forums with the neighbors is always a good idea. Change of this type does not happen overnight but you have start at the grass roots activism and education level.

two examples of your point in San Diego

Can urban San Diego support the type of neighborhood markets you describe?

If 7-elevens are any indication, then yes. They have popped up all over downtown and uptown over the past 18 months and they have plans to do 100 new stores in SoCal over the next 3 years.

Why are they so successful? Cheap food does very well in tough times.

Other examples:
1. Grant's Marketplace in South Park is similar to what you describe but you could argue that they too closely resemble a gourmet shop.

Their selections and pricing do seem to fit the community pretty well though.

2. Market32 attempted to become a corner produce market in the East Village but they flopped after only 8 months or so. It was apparent early-on that they could not succeed on fruit and smoothies alone. The East Village in San Diego does not have the foot traffic of the East Village in NYC.

SD markets

Thanks for the info.

That's too bad about the East Village -- maybe an all-produce venture is too ambitious in SD. I've seen it work well in other cities. Mona Lisa in Little Italy carries a small selection and is able to keep it fresh. That may be the model to follow.

It looks like these markets are doing well - are you aware of these?

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