The unprecedented opportunity the city created with the $1 million incentive for a downtown grocery store piqued my interest from the first I heard of it. It motivated me to be part of the dialogue on overlapping subjects that I am passionate about: urban development, culture, and health and wellness. From my experience as a small business owner who has developed a variety of concepts in urban settings, I felt I had a cultivated perspective on how the city should grow, what is hindering growth and most importantly, the true cost and detrimental effects of cheap, processed food.
When it comes to urban development, it is important to be creative – even eclectic – for effective, cohesive growth. Where others see nothing or even great risk, there could be diamonds in the rough waiting to be polished.
This has been my attitude when creating neighborhood gyms in downtown Alamo Heights and in King William, and with the design of the 1221 Broadway fitness centers and the managing of the Cevallos Lofts fitness centers. Every nook and cranny is an opportunity to create culture, and from my company’s point of view that provides options for fitness in fun, interesting locales.
With Uncommon Fare and MBS Spa, we identified what Cevallos Lofts and the community-at-large were lacking in goods and services and integrated with the lofts themselves by renovating a two-story apartment into two small businesses accessible to the tenants and the neighborhood.
There is a better, more organic way to address this need for a grocery store that fits with the character of downtown. I believe this because I’ve already done it with Uncommon Fare. The insistence on a 15-20,000 square-foot store is a heavy-handed and artificial way of creating growth, and will actually stifle the type of culture that will make San Antonio a special place to live.
Based on the study done by HR&A for the city [PDF], in order for a large store to succeed it will be inherent that they control an inordinate amount of the market just to survive. It will also be necessary to provide an additional $2.5 to $3 million subsidy over the next ten years for a store of this size to make it. (See: “Necessary Subsidy for Development” section within the HR&A study.)
What is needed – and what will be the optimal catalyst – is to instead spread the investment across every sector of what is defined as the “urban core.”
I propose a constellation of unique locations: multiple, smaller grocery stores that fit into the fabric of the diverse urban landscape. By integrating with existing investment, the mixed use developments that are already developed or in development, urban density will be attained while not forcing out other businesses or discouraging others to create something new.
The city has already implemented finish-out allowances for potential businesses in these new developments. These existing incentives will supplement the grocery store incentive instead of the necessity to create an additional subsidy. The HR&A study acknowledges that this multi-tenant option was beyond the scope of their analysis and was not included in the report.
In order to truly transform the city, not only do we need to fill these new developments with a bastion of new urbanites, we must also provide accessible, affordable, and healthy food options to the long-time residents directly in their neighborhoods. The strategy for this to occur – what I believe is the biggest hindrance to growth so far – is to purchase dilapidated and undeveloped properties and repurpose them into multi-functional uses such as industrial kitchens and distribution centers. These will support the other satellite locations while providing a storefront that offers less expensive but still healthy options to the less affluent areas of downtown.
Since these hubs will provide support to the other locations, the satellites can reduce square footage and maximize space while allowing for locations serving a low-income population to develop community gardens, nutritional seminars and food demonstrations without the economic pressures of the market value costs associated with mixed-use developments.
With the development of Uncommon Fare at Cevallos Lofts, the experiment of a small, urban grocery store is working. We are facing the challenges of a demographically and economically diverse downtown population with open arms.
Adjustments and adaptations can be implemented quickly and efficiently on this scale while sustaining the high level of quality that we set out to provide. The possibility of multiple locations will provide the opportunity to make even more refinements, allowing the demands of a specific demographic to be met while providing other options in close proximity to one another. This small-footprint strategy will have the biggest impact on the whole of city center, and the best way to allocate the incentives created by the city.
Josh Levine owns MBS which stands for Mind Body Soul, a lifestyle company that consists of a variety of small businesses – MBS Fitness, MBS Pilates, MBS Spa, Crossfit Mind Body Soul, and Uncommon Fare Goods and Groceries. A certified personal trainer and yoga instructor for over ten years, he continues to help people get fit on a daily basis. He can be reached at email@example.com.