24 March 2010
The Walking Shopper's Dilemma
Grafton Street, Dublin; Flickr photo by rutty
I don't own a car. Haven't had one for about ten years. My girlfriend does, and we use it for running various errands and trips out of town, but I do the majority of my shopping for groceries and everything else on my bike or on foot. Even in a highly walkable city like Chicago, most of our stores were designed and built with the driving customer in mind, often at the expense of everybody else. The grocery store up the street from our house requires anybody arriving by foot to walk around the end of the security fence into the driveway of the parking lot in order to enter the building...not exactly the safest route.
Richard Layman had a post on urban supermarket design a few months ago that struck a chord with me. He makes the assertion that most grocery and drug store chains don't design their urban stores to take full advantage of their locations. This is something that really bothers me, particularly about Walgreens in Chicago. If you don't live here, they have locations all over the place, and it seems like a new one pops up every couple weeks. The company was one of the pioneers in the use of GIS to target their retail openings, and that is especially evident by the appearance of stores in "food deserts". I don't have any problems with a company using technology to find an underserved market and create a niche for themselves, though it always kind of depresses me when I see people doing their grocery shopping at a drug store with limited food options. But I digress. My problem is with the cookie-cutter store design. They are so ubiquitous that most mid-scale retail development seems to copy their format. Having a basic template is hugely cost-effective in the construction process, but it is impossible to differentiate between a Walgreens store in the neighborhoods of Chicago and one in the outer suburbs (apart from the size of the parking lot).
Yesterday afternoon I was in Wicker Park visiting a friend at his apartment, his front window looks down on the entrance to the Walgreens store at Milwaukee, Wolcott & Wood. (The intersection itself is another problem, and will possibly be the subject of a separate post in the future.) This is an older store, built in the 60s or 70s but the basic problems are the same. First of all is the problem of scale and street frontage. From the end of the parking lot to the furthest corner of the store, the footprint faces 282 feet of Milwaukee Avenue. This may not seem like a great distance, but that's the width of eleven standard Chicago buildings. On the pedestrian level it's basically a dead zone. If you're walking southeast on Milwaukee, first you pass the parking lot, then a long blank wall. Here's a rough model of the site, most other Walgreens I've seen in the city share the same basic alignment with the street:
Again, this is rough, and not precisely to scale, but it's close. You can see how a person walking past is completely out of proportion and would have to walk for some distance before they were engaged. Compound this with the issue of snow and a store like this literally becomes an impediment. In Wicker Park, the Special Service Area maintenance fund pays for snow removal, but in other neighborhoods this entire length of sidewalk would likely remain unshoveled all winter.
The second problem is with the entrance istelf, from a pedestrian view it's just not very inviting. I sat watching people come and go for some time, and I would venture to guess that a full half of the customers did not arrive by car. This is a neighborhood with a very high mode share for walking and cycling and the site use should reflect that. I watched as people bumped into acquaintances, or waited outside in the spring weather while their companion shopped. This is a public space, and should be treated like one. It's unrealistic to call for every Walgreens in the city to be torn down and rebuilt, but with a few minor design changes they could be better urban neighbors and take advantage of increased pedestrian traffic at the same time. Here is another rough model illustrating how getting rid of the Milwaukee driveway (the parking lot would still have an entrance on Wolcott) and losing a whopping four parking spaces, the sidewalk could be widened into a pedestrian plaza.
The result is a much more pleasant streetscape. The store is fundamentally the same, but much more attractive to passers-by. Large windows facing the street on the Milwaukee side could engage pedestrians with tantalizing sale offers, and if somebody sitting on a bench feels like a frosty cold beverage, they could walk across the street to the 7-11, but the path of least resistance is straight into the Walgreens. Of course I couldn't leave out an elotes cart...