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...


  1. 1372 Milwaukee got a walkscore of 97. I'm guessing the elotes cart would have given it a 100.

    And you're dead right about stores copying the design. Nice observation.

    - JJ

  2. thanks, jj! glad to see you here!

  3. It would be refreshing if Walgreen's (especially because of it's Chicago roots) would make an urban template to follow. They don't seem to realize (or perhaps care) how their placement and presence can affect the neighborhood. But they should have enough data to realize how a more attractive streetscape (and they are a part of that) means more foot traffic leading to more sales.

    Even with your redesign, however, I think that covering your windows with advertising maintains the feeling of a wall, which is decidedly NOT welcoming to pedestrians.

  4. Lynn, I agree that it's not ideal...I only gave myself about a half an hour to work on this and found myself wondering what to do. I should have mentioned in the post that I was trying to work with the existing structure, so as to provide a relatively simple and inexpensive retrofit idea. It is still a long stretch of sidewalk, but I thought windows would at least give you some feeling of being part of the streetscape when you're inside the store.

    I would love to hear your suggestions though, and I'm glad to see you on my site. I've been reading your blog for some time.

  5. Walgreens and other similar stores, big boxes, etc. will have to re-think the interior real estate to affect the exterior in a positive way. They already have the windows -- often because the city requires them -- and they need to open them up so people on the street can see what's going on in the store. I'm not sure why so many of these types of stores have abandoned good old fashioned merchandising, an attractive display in the window that still allows you to peek into the store and (hopefully) its activity.

    That tho requires them to re-think how their internal shelving and overall organization (where is the [possibly soon-to-be obsolete?] film counter, check out, etc. located) is configured. Right now the template seems to be for a car-oriented suburban model, rather than a pedestrian-oriented urban model.

  6. It really shouldn't be that difficult. If you visit any small town Main Street, you're likely to find a pre-war drug store still in use. I'm sure there's a filing cabinet somewhere in the Deerfield headquarters with some old store blueprints that could be updated. I hope somebody up there is reading this.

    Having such a car-centric model doesn't even make that much sense to me, Walgreen's isn't the sort of place where people go to make large purchases...most people are buying a few small items and don't need a car to transport them.