corner retail, part two

My earlier post on corner retail was in preparation for talking about an idea that corner retail should be acknowledged, supported, and promoted in the upcoming Sacramento 2020 General Plan. The general plan tentatively promotes higher density by allowing a reasonable floor area ratio for properties throughout the city, while removing development constraints that add nothing to safety or livability. Assuming the plan and the resulting code to support it does significantly increase the number of homes and people able to live in the city, if the city remains as car-centric as it is, the result will just be less parking availability and more congestion (both of which I’m in favor of, but I recognize most people are not). It would go towards solving the housing issue, but do little for livability and climate change issues.

So what is the solution? A place where people can perform most of their daily activities without driving. In other words, corner retail. The jobs issue is a separate one, though corner retail would also increase the number of jobs within walking distance.

Karma Brew, my neighborhood bar, on the corner of P St & 16th St, 2-1/2 blocks from my house

I am not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but I’ll throw out an idea. I don’t think rezoning corner lots from residential to commercial is necessarily the answer, because that might encourage entirely new buildings replacing existing buildings. Obviously many existing buildings would need to be changed to serve as retail, but I don’t think wholesale replacement is good, and it is not respectful of that claim of ‘neighborhood character’ (which is often a cover for concerns not voiced, but is nevertheless a consideration).

Rather, I think a by-right conditional use permit (is that an oxymoron?) is the better solution. That way the building remains similar to what is there now, but becomes functional as a retail location.

Where? I’m partly of mind to say everywhere, every corner. Much of the existing corner retail predates zoning (grandfathered in) or is already under a conditional use permit. But I’m also of mind to limit it to fewer locations, which would be any corner fronted on at least one side by a collector or arterial street. In the lower density parts of Sacramento, I don’t think much corner retail would show up, because it takes a certain density to make retail viable, but there would certainly be more than there is today. Wouldn’t you like to be able to walk to a coffee shop in your neighborhood. Or walk to the market for a few items?

Note that I’m not clearly defining what corner retail is. Does it mean there is only one business present, or allowed, or could it be a few small footprint businesses clustered together? Some of the locations I’ve identified are not on actual corners, but they have the feeling of corner retail. The general plan and the supporting code would have to define corner retail.

Below are two maps of Oak Park, on the left, arterials and collectors, and on the right, GoogleMaps with markets selected. The scales are similar but not identical. As you can see, some corners on arterials or collectors already have corner markets, and there are other corners with retail that is not a market, but there are a number of locations that could have corner retail under my proposal, but do not. I picked Oak Park just because I’d spent time there recently looking for markets and other corner retail (photos below).

The slideshow below shows some of the corner retail, mostly markets, in Oak Park. Note that in general these locations are much more car-oriented than the ones I showed in the central city, because the area is much more car dominated. I will say more about that in the future. It does not include the many, many businesses that are part of commercial zones along Broadway and Martin Luther King. If you zoom in on Google Maps, a commercial area overlay shows up as pale yellow. I am gradually collecting photos of retail in other areas of Sacramento and will eventually post them.

corner retail

I have been thinking about the value of corner retail for a while, and gradually collecting photographs of corner retail in Sacramento. A Twitter reference also brought me to an article from last year by the Congress for New Urbanism, Public Square “Corner stores can anchor a neighborhood“. What moved me to post now, though, is the recent death of Calvin Yang, owner of the Sacramento midtown market, DJ Market. See Sacramento celebrates life of beloved midtown store owner Calvin Yang with vigil, memories. It really brought home to me how important these neighborhood, locally owned, small businesses can be to the community. They are a key part of livability.

DJ Market, midtown Sacramento, memorial offerings

Using the term corner retail, I’m not just referring to corner markets, but to any public-facing business on a corner. In the Sacramento central city, these include frame shops, child care, laundromats, barbers, coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants, bars, record stores, and many more. Though grocery stores or markets are probably the most important, it is the variety of small businesses that make it work. And I am going to claim that much of the livability of the central city comes from these having these businesses close to hand. It is part of the 15-minute city that I will post on soon. The main point of 15-minute cities is that everything you need on a day-to-day basis is within a walking or bicycling distance of where you live.

One of the things I will never understand is people driving to get coffee, and even worse, drive-through coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, but I do go out often for tea. My favorite location is The Mill on I Street, not because it is the closest to where I live, but it is walkable and easily bikeable, and I really like the owners. I have said for years, long before coffee places became more commonplace, that the single greatest determinant of livability is the density of coffee shops. It doesn’t matter whether you go out for coffee, or make it at home, or don’t drink coffee at all, having one or more coffee shops in your neighborhood means you are in a livable, walkable place. Coffee places are not just places to get coffee, but what are called third places, where people can socialize and get to know their neighbors.

It is also relevant to me that these corner lots and small, often quite old, buildings cannot host a chain business, except in some cases what I’d call local chains, of which coffee places are probably the most common. A national or regional chain simply cannot compete in this local environment.

I’m not referring here to modern mixed use buildings that contain ground-floor retail, nor am I referring to commercial/retail blocks or clusters where there are a number of businesses. These are businesses on the corner, adjacent to largely residential. Though I certainly support those as well, they are not what I’m calling corner retail.

My apologies for the central city focus in the post and the gallery of photos. I live downtown, so it has been easy to get to these locations for photos. When I have the chance to get to the other important parts of the city, I will post again. I have probably missed a number businesses that should be in this central city gallery.

What is your favorite corner retail? How often do you go there? How important is it to you that these places exist? What other businesses would you like to see within walking distance of your home?