Britain worries about supermarkets mangling town centers

Grocery chains are under pressure to do mixed-use urban development, but the results are sometimes crude.


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

During the Margaret Thatcher era, the British government made it easier for retailers to build shopping centers beyond established town centers. Partly as a result, the proportion of new retail cropping up in the United Kingdom’s town centers plummeted from 85 percent in 1970 to 34 percent in 1990, according to the US-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A backlash against outlying, automobile-scale development eventually ensued, and in recent years many supermarkets have opened in town centers, often as part of new mixed-use projects. But “supermarket-led development” in town centers is presenting its own set of problems.

A recent report — Supermarket-led development: asset or liability? — examines the good and bad aspects of bringing large grocery stores to High Streets and urban locations. Although much of the report (available here) addresses British conditions, including UK planning processes, it has wider relevance at a time when US and Canadian chains are also building new stores in compact urban settings.

The report, from the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), points out that supermarkets are increasingly being combined with other enterprises or different types of development: “Fewer stores are being built to stand alone: often they come with a mix of housing, sports, facilities, shopping streets or schools.”

The move of some British supermarkets to in-town locations reflects disenchantment with the dispersed development of much of the 1980s and 1990s. Alarmed by the decline of many traditional shopping districts, the UK in 1997 enacted regulations hindering development of large new stores on outlying sites. Before big stores could be constructed at the edge of town, the developer often had to show that it wasn’t feasible to put the new retail in a more central area.

Supermarket chains such as Britain’s second-largest — Asda, owned since 1999 by Wal-Mart — chafed under the restrictions and tried to get them loosened or scrapped, as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported here. But the restrictions continue — most notably in Planning Policy Statement 4: Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth, a document that the British government rolled out in December 2009 after a year and a half of deliberation.

The policy tries to increase the likelihood that “new economic growth will be focused in existing centres, local distinctiveness recognised and protected, and more competition and consumer choice encouraged,” Mark Dodds of the British planning firm DPP explains here. Because of British policy, a sizable number chain food stores will almost certainly continue being inserted into urban locations.

Hopes and fears

“Supermarket-led development can restore life to a centre which has suffered from out-of-town or edge of town development, or just become very dated,” CABE says.

“In many mid-sized towns, the centre is blighted by a tired mall built two or three decades ago and treated by its owner as a pension rather than something to manage and maintain,” the report notes. In that situation, a well-integrated new development may be able to revive the primary shopping area, CABE observes. ‘Health centres, libraries, sports facilities and gyms can be arranged along streets and around public spaces, along with cafés and bars.”

In practice, however, “many schemes are not designed well enough to deliver these benefits,” according to CABE. “Supermarkets — and the developers with which they work — keep repeating the model designed for out-of-town sites, with rectangular buildings, large car parks and constant delivery.” Big, new, rectangular buildings are constructed with little regard for the irregularly shaped blocks that they occupy. Parking is given a prime location. Often, says CABE, the design ”bears no relationship to the neighbourhood.”

Among the examples CABE cites:

• In Halesworth, Suffolk, a store proposed by Tesco, Britain’s leading grocer, was designed with its blank rear wall positioned along a popular pedestrian route. The design placed the store’s service yard and overflow parking lot where they would end up detracting from historically significant buildings.

• In Bromley-by-Bow in East London, permission was granted for a development containing a “monolithic Tesco store,” a primary school, hotel, public park, and 293 housing units. Interesting though the mix may be, the layout is perverse. The supermarket gets waterside frontage, CABE says, while the residential tower overlooks an approach to a highway tunnel. “The new primary school in the scheme is tacked onto the store’s delivery yard, reached across the entrance to a busy car park.”

The report, based on an examination of 30 supermarket-led developments, finds that in many of the layouts the housing “will be an unpleasant place to live.” In one design involving Asda, “at least 36 apartments faced only north, or were set back within corners which would restrict daylight.” In an Asda development proposed for North London, “the apartments were accessed from the basement car park and along frontages adjacent to store parking entrances.”

A better approach

CABE appears to be regarded by British design professionals as a good influence on urbanism, though problematic for traditional architects because of its tendency to promote modernism over other building styles.

One supermarket-led development that CABE presents as high-quality was built in 1988 near the Grand Union Canal in Camden, London. Sharing the site with a Sainsbury’s supermarket is Grand Union Walk — a complex of 10 three-story townhouses that CABE describes as “still a desirable place to live.”

The townhouses’ living spaces have windows and balconies on the north side, where they overlook the canal — the waterside view being an appealing feature for residents. The south wall of the housing was left blank to prevent truck noise and engine exhaust from intruding on residents. The architects, Norman Grimshaw & Partners, top-lighted some of the living spaces to compensate for the lack of windows on that exposure.

The canalside exterior is clad in corrugated metal, with windows set in gaskets like those of a van or a recreational vehicle, as noted in an analysis (available here) by the international multifamily housing site HousingPrototypes.Org. The houses consequently look like a row of Airstream trailers stretched up toward the sky. The styling complements the industrial look of the supermarket, and undoubtedly appeals to a certain type of Londoner, but it’s clearly not an aesthetic for everyone.

Another project praised by CABE is Vizion, in Milton Keynes New Town, which includes 441 apartments and townhouses, 38,000 sq. ft. of commercial and office space, 5,380 sq ft. of community facilities, and a 1.5-acre garden for the residents, set on the roof of a 107,0000 sq. ft. Sainsbury’s supermarket.

With Public Planning Statement 4 as support, CABE urges authorities to insist that a supermarket development “enhance the established character an diversity of the town.”

That may mean:

• Requiring the supermarket to be flexible about floor space, site configuration, and parking.

• Requiring the design to show links from the store to the surrounding neighborhood.

• Avoiding extensive blank walls, by screening the store with residential and commercial units.

• Moving some elements — such as the deli counter or the pharmacy — out of the main box and into a separate shop frontage.

• Designing open space with porous surfaces to slow the flow of rainwater and reduce the flash flooding that CABE says is becoming more frequent in urban areas.

Future adaptability

“The housing component of a scheme is not generally a significant source of value for the developer,” CABE points out. It is often included in the project because local planning officials demand it.

Therefore, authorities need to know what kinds of features will produce a good environment for the residents. “These include clear and safe access routes home, and a real ‘address’ — a proud and visible front door to the apartments from the street,” the report says. “There needs to be clear differentiation between routes for the shopping public and the residents’ private world.”

How might reliance on cars be reduced? “Credible transport alternatives, such as courtesy bus schemes, can be offered, and discounts for people using public transport or taxis,” the report suggests. “At some Waitrose stores,” says CABE, “cyclists can hire shopping baskets on wheels.” Expansion of home delivery services also reduces automobile trips.

Supermarkets could be built to make later conversion to other uses more feasible. Thirteen percent of Britons shopped online for groceries in 2009 — a figure that is projected to double by 2014, the report says. “So supermarket buildings may need to be designed in a way which allows them to be adapted for new uses. Structural flexibility could include floor-to-floor heights suitable for future conversion to office use, and building in the possibility for lateral subdivision.”

“The inclusion of housing in mixed-use schemes makes it particularly important to design for change,” CABE emphasizes. “Out of town, it is feasible to build on the premise that sheds can change use or be dismantled, but it is a different matter to unstitch complicated building forms with a range of uses and different life cycles on suburban or inner city sites.