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Grocery Stores Anchor Communities. One Architecture Firm Is Making Sure Every Neighborhood Can Build One

The Safeway at College Avenue in Oakland, California

Grocery stores can be engines of economic change in local economies. But the areas that need grocery stores the most — dense, urban communities with less access to fresh food — are also the hardest places to find available infill land to build sprawling aisles for produce and staples. 

Along with a lack of available land, building a grocery store in an urban environment creates a host of design challenges, as developers and architects struggle to accommodate the parking, shipping and storage space requirements for a large chain store. 

“There’s a demand to bring more grocery stores to cities, but they can’t be designed in the same way as stores in rural or suburban environments,” Lowney Architecture President and CEO Ken Lowney said. “A traditional grocery store has massive amounts of parking out front and is a single-level, sprawling store. Designs like that just don’t work in the middle of a busy city.” 

Lowney’s firm has designed several grocery stores and he has seen firsthand the positive impact that they can have on local communities and economies, which is why his firm is now focused on tackling the challenges of designing urban grocery stores. 

Retail was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but as many small businesses shuttered, grocery stores experienced unprecedented sales. They were deemed essential businesses throughout the pandemic, and many saw lines out the door as shoppers rushed to stock up for quarantines.

“The pandemic highlighted what we’ve always known: grocery stores are the best development anchors,” Lowney said. “They provide an essential service that everyone needs and support local businesses around them.” 

Small businesses that may not easily draw in customers on their own, such as flower shops, bakeries and other specialty stores, are often able to thrive on the foot traffic coming to a neighboring grocery store. 

One of the biggest challenges of designing an urban grocery store is handling deliveries. Massive, 70-foot trucks regularly arrive and depart from grocery stores, and they need somewhere to unload their cargo. Add that to the parking and space issues, and designers need to think outside the box when approaching an infill grocery store. 

The Whole Foods in Oakland's Adams Point neighborhood

This is exactly when Lowney did when he and his team designed a Safeway for the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, California, which opened in 2015. The 45K SF store is part of the popular College Avenue retail corridor, and in order to make it fit, Lowney designed it in a way that would allow for easy, large-scale parking on the top of the building with the store located underneath. Lowney and his team took things a step further, looking for ways to incorporate elements into the design that would boost the local economy and benefit the community. 

“We wanted to create a custom-fit store that was tailored to the community’s needs, something that looked natural and didn’t feel out of place,” Lowney said. “The community had a lot of concerns about the store, and we wanted to take all of that into consideration and create a space they could be proud of.” 

The project had been in the works for seven years, but it had been unable to move forward because of opposition to the design from the community. Lowney and his team worked side by side with residents and the Oakland City Council to come up with a plan that everyone could agree on, and was able to get plans approved when other architects had failed. 

The firm added 9,500 SF of additional retail space so more shops could move in, and created a pedestrian walkway lined with shops, landscaping and a central public plaza. 

Lowney and his team have had similar success designing other unique infill grocery projects in Oakland, including transforming a cable car power station from 1890 into a Whole Foods Market.

For that project, the team restored the building’s historic facade and installed a 200-space rooftop and street-level parking area. The project took five years and required the collaboration of 10 different engineering firms to tackle the various environmental challenges the team faced but, in the end, the store was completed and Oakland's Adams Point neighborhood had its first new grocery store in 25 years. 

“One of the foundations of a successful neighborhood is a grocery store,” Lowney said. “We’re finding ways to make sure that every neighborhood can have a chance to build the grocery stores it deserves.” 

This article was produced in collaboration between Lowney Architecture and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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