Downtown advocates discuss opportunities to establish a new supermarket in the underserved downtown core.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 07, 2012
Last Monday, the Spectator reported that the City is considering a one-time offer of $650,000 to entice a grocery store downtown.
Other than the Farmers' Market, which is open four days a week, there are no supermarkets between the Fortino's on Dundurn Street South at King Street West, the Food Basics on Barton Street East at Mary Street, and the No Frills on Main Street East at Erie Avenue.
That's an area of over six square kilometres, comprising some of the most populous mixed-income neighbourhoods in the city.
The basic issue stopping a prospective developer is that per-square-foot property costs are higher downtown than elsewhere in the city, but supermarkets run on very tight margins and can't afford a big up-front penalty for premium real estate.
At the same time, the downtown core faces a kind of 'soft redlining' from banks and financiers that still don't really understand urban economics and are reluctant to support downtown reinvestment - despite a strong track record of successful projects.
Meanwhile, the overall local residential market for a grocery store is still not quite dense, proximate and affluent enough for urban economies to kick in - though it's trending the right way.
The city's Economic Development department is hearing from grocery store chains that they've looked at the numbers for a downtown supermarket and the startup cost/risk is still a barrier.
Staff proposed the one-time subsidy because they calculated that it will be enough to push an investor over the hump and make the business viable.
That, in turn, will remove an important barrier to more people moving downtown - the lack of local access to groceries. In other words, the supermarket itself will foster the conditions for its own continued success.
It's a chicken/egg problem, and staff see the subsidy as a way to break the impasse. The idea has already spurred a thoughtful, spirited exchange among several community advocates.
M Adrian Brassington of the MyStoneyCreek blog proposed a counter-offer to engaged citizens: "utilize your immense talents and sound, heart-based energies and construct a co-op effort" in partnership with an independent store or supermarket chain.
He argued, "Here's a chance to actually pull together and make a difference. ... There's no reason why a 'community effort' couldn't provide a downtown grocery store, and plough the proceeds back into the community."
Community activist Matt Jelly stressed, "More than anything, I just want to see the development to be leveraged to fill a vacant building/develop a vacant lot/remediate a brownfield, and to be located in a way that it doesn't overly take business away from already-established independents."
He suggested Durand, Corktown, and South Beasley neighbourhoods as areas particularly in need of walkable access to groceries, despite some of the highest population densities in the city.
"To be honest," he concluded, "I'm not picky on the specific end-result consumer arrangement, as long as it's a good, affordable grocery store downtown."
Graham Crawford of HIStory+HERitage on James Street North applauded the idea of an incentive and wants to couple it with a compatible development, like the Royal Connaught or the residential towers LIUNA proposed building behind the Lister Block.
"Any residential project within the boundaries of Economic Development's Downtown Hamilton Community Improvement Project Area would benefit from having a grocery store within walking distance. It's an amenity most residential developers say is a significant benefit. Critical mass is the key."
He also suggested that competition would help, rather than hurt, the Farmers' Market by focusing the energy and efforts of the stallholders "to identify and to offer a unique service."
Jeremy Freiburger, executive director of the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts, shared Crawford's desire that the city should "leverage the incentive to immediately spur another development.
"Instead of hoping that the grocery store will encourage residency in the core, make it definitely spur development by making it the leverage point in a larger project."
Glen Norton, the City's manager of urban renewal, confirmed that staff are also looking at this angle, but warned, "if by 'bundling' it with something bigger, the grocery store [may get] delayed (or even stopped) if that bigger project does not get its funding or is stopped or significantly delayed for some reason."
He also suggested splitting the $650,000 into a few smaller prizes, "so that local stores could expand to include more space, products, and hours of operation".
Norton looks forward to more and broader community engagement on urban revitalization opportunities.
Finally, it's essential that a downtown grocery store respect urban design guidelines for its construction. It would do the downtown no good to demolish a block of urban streetwall and build a one-storey retail warehouse surrounded by surface parking.
Instead, we could transform one of our block-busting surface parking lots into a multi-storey, mixed-use building with a supermarket as the anchor tenant.
This essay is also published in today's Spectator.
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