Imagine a time, years ago, when Johnny and Billie Sue could take a break from jumprope, hopscotch, and tree climbing to ride their bikes down to the corner store, sit at the soda fountain, buy shoelaces, and trade comic books. Sounds like an idyllic bygone era doesn’t it? But I’m not that old and I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I lived it. Even we had a corner store. It wasn’t run by Mr. Hooper (it was a Circle K), but nevertheless, it shaped my childhood as the place to go to buy comic books, baseball cards, and candy. The corner store is an urban form most people are familiar with and, I think, deliberate and planned proliferation of friendly, convenient neighborhood markets (just like the old days) could help win broader support for density.
First, here’s the background behind my interest in the corner store. Before the Euclid decision, uses in cities were mixed up. A rendering plant might be parked right next to a bunch of homes. But zoning changed all that. For health and safety, uses were segregated and pushed apart. Cars and subsidized roads made those distances pretty convenient and affordable to cover. But the downside, as we now know, was a bunch of negative consequences like ugly sprawl, traffic nightmares, big boxes, and worse—climate change, air and water pollution, dependence on volatile and unreliable sources of fuel and energy, and the costs of parking and new highways, not to mention loss of what’s now called walkability (Johnny and Billie Sue wouldn’t have a clue what it meant—but they lived in walkable neighborhoods).
We pretty much know how to fix the problem. By pushing uses back together, reversing almost a century of conventional approaches to zoning we can start to reduce dependence on cars and roads. Compact, dense, and transit-oriented neighborhoods have everything residents need close by and affordable transit connections to those things that aren’t as close. That’s the groovy vision many of us hold. But realizing it will require closing the sprawling gaps between uses—retail, commercial, and residential—that we created with Euclidian zoning which made community-knitting elements like the corner store less prevalent.
But the sticky part is that after a couple generations of seeing the world as a series of cool places connected by roads and reached by car, we’ve developed a pretty strong social norm about our cars, parking, and roads. There’s even a strong meme being pushed that those of us who have the vision of compact communities are waging a “war on cars.” How might we change that norm in a positive way that creates more housing and growth in and around single family neighborhoods with entrenched single use identities?
Enter the corner store.
Could the corner store be introduced into local land use codes as a kind of low grade density therapy, gradually persuading single family neighborhoods that more people and more kinds of uses are actually positive for the quality of life in single family neighborhoods? I checked out a number of articles on corner stores in single family neighborhoods. One paper stood out. Presented as part of Smart Growth @10 Conference, the paper, entitled, “The Corner Store as an Element of Smart Growth,” surveyed residents of a neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland.
The study found that indeed, the corner store is a good way of changing the valence of neighborhoods. While it was a small sample—44 residents—residents, in general, responded well to visual examples of retail uses in residential neighborhoods. They liked some uses better than others, preferring retail stores more often than bars, for example. While the survey wasn’t huge and was largely qualitative, it is still instructive about how to use the corner store to open up single family neighborhoods to more variety of use—and open our minds to the density that a corner store supports.
I didn’t completely agree with all the recommendations offered in the paper, like banning chain stores and limiting the number or frontage of stores. Those ideas seem like a recipe for half measures or preventing growth in the future if a particular business catches on. But here are some ideas I liked from the paper with some of my ideas mixed in:
- Start with what’s already there—most Northwest cities have corners that used to be corner stores or some kind of retail use. Reactivating those and other adjacent corners would be an ideal start. Neighborhoods would likely see this as value added, lighting up a space that hasn’t worked.
- Let the market drive the envelope—rather than limit the type, size, or location it ought to be up to the neighborhood and retailer to decide what’s needed and what might work. One neighborhood might want a Starbucks while another might want to support a new location of a local retailer from across town. Some neighborhoods might want a neighborhood bar while others would prefer a doughnut shop.
- Permit corner stores in single family neighborhoods—right now this would be considered an “up-zone,” and might be resisted. But if the two suggestions above are followed this could be seen as a real opportunity for reducing blight in some neighborhoods and a chance to support more community interaction.
Corner stores won’t solve all the challenges of absorbing growth, but they would be an ideal first step toward winning the hearts and minds of the most stalwart single family neighborhood “protectors,” often skeptical of change around their own homes. Housing projects, even when they have retail, often feel speculative and out of scale. Corner stores meet neighborhood needs close by, create street level activity, and can fit well with the surrounding neighborhood. There’s a raft of co-benefits too.
Corner stores can also serve to bring neighbors together in a public place, get them walking, save them gas money, keep money in local economies by supporting mom and pops rather than funneling it to national chains, etc. Part of the future of land use planning might not be inventing something new, but reintroducing something seen as part of the past. Corner stores could be one of those bridges between what we think was and what could be, providing an opportunity to legalize neighborhood density.
Photo by author.