Adult residents of city and suburban neighborhoods probably visit their local grocery store or supermarket more frequently than any other retail or service destination. Among all such community facilities — retail shops, restaurants, schools, post offices and even religious structures — none figure more regularly and indispensably in American adults’ domestic routines than the grocery store.

For some, grocery shopping is a chore; for others, it’s a ritual. Our most commonly shared retail experience, it is periodically an informal social experience when — in an aisle or checkout line — you cross paths with immediate neighbors or shoppers whom you may not know but who are residents of your community.

You may be on a first-name basis with grocery-store checkout clerks, chatting and exchanging pleasantries as your grocery bar codes are scanned. But you are probably quite indifferent to your grocery store’s architecture.

In American suburbs, the typical grocery store is a nondescript, cheaply built one-story masonry box surrounded by surface parking and occupying several acres of land. Or it’s part of a strip shopping center, along with a drugstore, bank branch, salon, dry cleaner, pizza parlor, Chinese restaurant or other locally operated convenience stores.

But must a grocery store, which can encompass tens of thousands of square feet, inevitably be a nondescript and aesthetically unremarkable box? Must a grocery store be simply an aesthetically mundane warehouse in which groceries are stocked and sold?

Few architects concern themselves with designing strip shopping centers or grocery stores, which are rarely considered opportunities for award-winning architectural invention. Likewise, architectural preservationists and historians devote little time and effort studying, saving or writing books about grocery stores.

But in metropolitan Washington, there are exceptions. Silver Spring-based Torti Gallas and Partners, Rounds VanDuzer Architects in Falls Church and MV+A in the District have demonstrated that grocery stores are, in fact, fruitful design opportunities.

For example, MV+A has designed or co-designed with other firms about 70 Whole Foods Markets throughout the Washington area and in cities across the country, including in Newport News and Charlottesville, in Virginia, Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; Clearwater and Winter Park, in Florida; and University Heights, Ohio.

Built or under construction in this region are stores in Towson, Columbia, Riverdale, Chevy Chase, Vienna, Arlington and Alexandria. In the District, MV+A designed Whole Foods Markets in Georgetown and on P Street NW in Logan Circle.

Whole Foods has been a pioneering innovator, creating a new urban grocery store typology. Other competing, recently constructed supermarket chains have followed suit, aspiring to go beyond merely stocking and selling groceries.

This new type of store appears mostly within relatively dense residential and commercial settings. Such food stores may become urban catalysts, contributing constructively to the visual, social and economic revitalization of evolving city neighborhoods.

Whether free-standing or part of a mixed-use, city block infill development, these food stores can serve as memorably magnetic destinations and aesthetically robust additions to the streetscape, thanks to key design strategies.

Street facades, with large windows or glazed curtain walls, ensure that spacious, animated store interiors are publicly visible, day or night.Conversely, facade transparency enables views of the street from inside the store. And daylight penetrates deeply into the building’s often lofty interior, revealing typically an interwoven overhead network of exposed structural members, ducts, pipes and pendant light fixtures.

Newer store types increasingly offer interior social spaces — essentially cafes — where shoppers can meet, sit, talk or have breakfast or lunch by purchasing food and beverages available for on-site consumption. Beer and wine may even be available in some stores, local regulations permitting.

Parking for urban food stores can be underground, at street level and beneath an elevated grocery store structure, or within an adjacent, above-grade parking garage. A structured parking space costs much more than a surface parking space. But by eliminating ecologically unsustainable surface parking lots, a food store occupies much less land, resulting in substantial land-cost savings that offset structured parking costs.

Thus, the 21st-century food store, designed as a multi-functional destination and laudable work of architecture, attracts people who come there for more than grocery shopping.

But creative design alone won’t solve the persistent problem of “food deserts” — communities lacking a conveniently accessible, full-service supermarket. Chain grocery retailers contend that, in many neighborhoods, there are not enough residents able to afford the quantity and quality of foods necessary to financially sustain an attractive food store with at least a modicum of profitability.

This appears to be why Walmart backed out of its commitment to build stores in the District east of the Anacostia River. Nevertheless, local governments and food retailers must continue searching for a strategy to address this socioeconomic challenge. And creative architectural design must be part of that strategy.

Source: The Washington Post