Walkable Neighborhood Grocers


Costco may be coming to Manhattan, bringing 2300 parking spaces with it.

In a city where high rents have driven out traditional grocery stores, some are welcoming the news. But is Costco the answer? Their buy-in-bulk business model is meant for big cars and big suburban homes. I don't see how this fits into Manhattan's car-free lifestyle, even if Costco modifies their building design for the urban landscape.

The role of neighborhood grocery stores in building and maintaining walkable communities cannot be overstated. European cities and towns simply would not be the pedestrian utopias that they are without the many small grocers, outdoor markets and specialty shops that make it possible to gather daily provisions without a car.


Small grocers are essential because:

• They fit well into walkable main streets.
• They are small enough to be located within residential communities.
• They don't require a huge parking lot
• They are close enough to housing so that shoppers can carry groceries home, or return several times a day if needed.


Can a neighborhood be considered mixed-use without a decent grocery store? And by decent, I am thinking of businesses that offer a basic variety of fresh, quality products at reasonable prices: Trader Joe's, Wild Oats, a trusted mom & pop grocer, or a local natural foods shop. Mid-sized grocery stores can also work well, provided that they are properly integrated into a city's shopping streets.

It's a common theme throughout suburban and even urban America: few residential neighborhoods are self sufficient when it comes to groceries. The ones that are lucky enough to have the "good stores" attract a lot of traffic from surrounding areas. The small grocery chain Fresh & Easy, subsidiary of the British Tesco empire, continues to expand in the southwestern United States. If the company targets locations that match the scale of its stores and have a walkable street grid, their venture could prove successful as the country trends away from suburban living.


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



Michael Lewyn's picture

Why not big grocery stores?

In the most compact, prosperous cities, city neighborhoods have had big department stores (Macy's, even KMart) and big bookstores (Barnes and Noble, Borders) for years. Why should grocery stores be any different?

Big Grocery Stores

Because you can go to Macy's by subway, buy clothing there, and carry your purchase back on the subway.

You cannot go to Costco by subway, because the purchases are too large to carry back without a car. The original post makes this point very well by saying:

Small grocers are essential because:
• They fit well into walkable main streets.
• They are small enough to be located within residential communities.
• They don’t require a huge parking lot
• They are close enough to housing so that shoppers can carry groceries home, or return several times a day if needed.

Incidentally, I think a similar argument applies in cities that are not pedestrian oriented. Even where you have to drive to buy groceries, you do much less damage by driving 2 miles to a supermarket rather than driving 10 miles to a big-box store.

PS: I do find that Whole Foods fits well into Manhattan. There are enough people within walking distance of Columbus Circle to keep the store there very busy, though it is fairly large and I believe it does not have parking (correct me if I am wrong). But Costco's big-box bulk-purchase model requires a car, which is why they plan 2300 parking spaces.

Charles Siegel

big purchase = big storage space

No one has mentioned how well Costco will do selling super large packages of toilet paper, soup and everything else in a market with some of the smallest residential living spaces. Where are people going to store a two month supply of toilet paper in a Manhatten apartment?

Living in Berlin, I had enough room for one small 10 roll pack of toilet paper and that was all. I had a small cupboard for food and a small (dorm size) refrigerator. So I bought food as I needed it and only as I needed it. The small family-owned grocery on my street was my pantry (it was only five minutes away from my kitchen). I liked the "just in time" approach to food buying. I significantly cut down on the amount of wasted food since I wasn't buying food to sit in the frig and go bad before I could eat it. Not only was I more efficient about food use, I also saved energy with my small frig and square footage needed to store food.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Costco may be a special case

Costco may be a special case, because of the parking spaces and because of the bulk purchasing model.

Having said that, I still think that as a general matter, an ordinary large grocery store (e.g. Trader Joe's, Whole Foods - or for that matter a slightly larger mainstream grocery store like the South's Publix chain) fits well into an urban environment- even if you buy too much to take the subway home, you can always take a cab (as I did when I lived car-free).

Grocery Store Sizes

I agree that a Trader Joes or small Whole Foods can fit in. In fact, a Trader Joes is being built just a few blocks from me. But compare typical store sizes:

Trader Joes: average size 10,000 to 15,000 sq ft
Typical 60's supermarket: 20,000 to 25,000 sq ft
Publix: average size 40,000 to 50,000 sq ft
Whole Foods: average size 50,000 to 55,000 sq ft
Costco: average size 141,000 sq ft.
Walmart supercenter: average size 187, 000 sq ft.

(Our Whole Foods in Berkeley is in the building of a 60's supermarket and is only about 25,000 sq ft. I like it better that way. I start feeling lost in a store larger than that.)

Charles Siegel

Costco vs. Local Grocery Store

I think the main issue here is relevance. Does someone who most likely lives alone or with one other person really need a 24 pack of toilet paper? First of all, that would be 3 months worth, secondly, where would it be stored in the home and thirdly, they would never be caught dead walking down the street with that much toilet paper.

Costco and similar mega-stores were originally designed for the suburbs and suburban vans. Not the biker, walker, transit-rider. Our houses aren't big enough, our arms not expansive enough, our needs not excessive enough. Now it seems that our local grocer, mom-pop, cultural-creative lifestyle will be extremely compromised by Costco struggling to meet the same profits they achieved 5 years ago when large master-planned communities were where the money and the consumers existed.

Apples and electronics

Costco isn't just a grocery store. They sell everything from shoes and jeans to electronics and hardware supplies, and not necessarily in bulk. I personally don't shop at Costco, but I understand why people value it. Plus, I hear that some of them have very good fresh seafood. To be quite honest, I find places like Whole Foods and Wild Oats to be very pretentious and pricey places to shop, and, in a subtle way, quite exclusionary. Costco and small family-owned stores appear more welcoming of families and minority shoppers. I think planners need to embrace reality once in a while, and see that there are people who don't want just a jar of locally made honey; they want to shop for their families, even in Manhattan.

Driving To The Poor House

During the 1930s, Will Rogers said "America is the first place in history where people drive to the poorhouse."

I am always reminded of that when I read this sort of claim that walkable neighborhoods are elitist and common people want to go to stores like Wal-Mart and Costco, where everyone drives.

Given current gasoline prices, it should be obvious that you are not helping moderate income Americans by encouraging more automobile use. And you are doing great harm to the poor people of the world, who have trouble affording food now that high fuel prices have pushed up its cost.

Among the world's worst elitists are Americans who attack elitism.

Charles Siegel

Getting to destinations.

I think planners need to embrace reality once in a while, and see that there are people who don't want just a jar of locally made honey; they want to shop for their families, even in Manhattan.

You're right - it's unrealistic to think that no one wants to walk to a neighborhood grocery, because instead we all prefer to jump in the car for a stick of butter or jump in the car for a walk after dinner to get an ice cream.

No need to try and provide for a walkable grocery at all, because all a ~10-15K sf grocery can provide is beeswax lip balm, lavender oil and almond honey. We should provide for one destination only, and not multiple ones.



Michael Lewyn's picture

You are both right

I agree that Whole Foods is a little pricey and pretentious; on the other hand, a bulk shopping model seems kind of problematic in most of Manhattan. Back when I lived in urban environments, what I would most craved were places that were kind of in between- stores comparable to the "normal", non-bulk grocery stores that I have in suburbia where I live now.

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