Tag Archives: Whole Foods

Sizing it up (2)

A new vision

Our next trip is to Austin, TX–a city that not long ago was comparable to Birmingham in size, but which recently has exploded with growth. Some quick stats: in 1960, Austin City had 186,000 residents and a metro of 301,000; Birmingham City had 340,000 residents and a metro of 634,000. Austin was 49 square miles, Birmingham 75. Fast forward to 2009, and Austin City has 786,000 souls and a metro of 1,705,000. Birmingham City has 230,000 souls and a metro of 1,212,000. City limits are now 272 square miles for Austin and 152 for Birmingham. In the last several years since I first visited, the skyline has transformed with multiple condo towers, each 30 stories or higher (the 60-story Austonian is pictured above).


Much of the new residential development is focused on the Warehouse District (more an excellent case of branding than a true warehouse district), where city leaders have focused development incentives to increase the resident downtown population to 25,000 by 2015 (it’s about 10,000 right now, and was about 5,000 just a few years ago). As you can see from the photo above, city design guidelines mandate very wide sidewalks, crisp street furniture and well-selected trees, hidden parking garages, and ground floor retail space. Which, despite a few vacancies, appears to be thriving with upper-end furniture stores, clothing boutiques, and the like.

Veggie dog, anyone?

The retail shops and restaurant are consistently high quality in their storefront presentations, graphics, signage, and street furniture (a good example is Jo’s Coffee above). In a complete inverse of Birmingham–where we have woefully little-to-no branding of urban neighborhoods which could allow the public and developers to focus and promote properly–Austin has aggressively branded its sub-neighborhoods downtown. Thus, the 2nd Street District is the retail center of the Warehouse District, with its own website, logos affixed to storefronts, etc.  A view out of one of our favorite shops, Mercury Design, is below; again notice the signage, the bikes, the wide sidewalks, the stylish mannequins across the way. It’s sort of a picture-perfect upscale urban dream made real.

Top notch urbanity

Perhaps in reaction to all the upscale shops and expensive condos (which fetch prices much higher than those in Birmingham), the City is working on new rules which require developers to pay a premium for certain densities and heights; this money goes into a community fund to support affordable housing and parks, in an effort to ensure downtown Austin doesn’t become just a playground for the rich.

Seen below is the mecca to which most downtowns aspire: the full-service supermarket. In Austin, just a 5 minute walk from 2nd Street, it just happens to be the US flagship Whole Foods:

Most downtowns would kill for this

Immensely successful, this market is surrounded by new mixed-use development including restaurants, indie retailers, even a large West Elm store. None of the architecture at this spot is anything to write home about, but the use-mix and walkability are great.

Speaking of architecture, Austin’s brand-new W Hotel and Residences has just opened (it’s worth looking at the website to drool over penthouse floor plans) and it’s one of the better towers in the Warehouse District, designed by Texas firm BOKA Powell:

You know you've made it when the "W" flickers on

I appreciated the lobby lounges, with their combination of exposed concrete, gray tones and bold accent colors, and relaxed modern vibe:

Austin grows up

Interestingly the W houses the popular music show Austin City Limits in a new concert and TV production facility. Which brings us to a common refrain from our friends we saw in Austin: what can be done to preserve “Austin” amidst all the new development, the W hotels, the huge amounts of new people pouring in yearly from other parts of the country? The Keep Austin Weird movement supports local independent businesses, including the music scene (there are over 1700 live music venues in Austin). Downtown certainly feels transitional right now–lots of cheaper indie stores and bars, and smaller scale historic architecture mixed in with the new condo towers, hip chains, and expensive boutiques. With all the explosive growth on track to continue, it will be fascinating to watch this city progress.

Again it seems like an inverse of our own situation: central Birmingham has a much larger historic building stock (including several “real” warehouse districts) but too little well-designed infill, too much mediocre rehab, and too few new people with new ideas moving into town. But we still have lots of “soul” and “urban grit” that promise potential. Austin has the opposite–less historic building stock, but  lots of infill, lots of new people, higher visual and graphic standards, and lots of new retail/restaurants/street activity. The potential is being realized, not hanging there elusively for the future. More on this in the next post.

A slice of the old Austin




Death of a Gypsy…

…and we don’t mean Carmen.

So, my local convenience store just closed a couple days ago–I ran across the street last night to get a couple tomatoes and found the “closed” sign on the door, and the interior was clearly in the process of being emptied.

Here’s a pic of the facade of the  Gypsy Market. Closed.

Now this brings up an interesting discussion–there was another “Neighborhood Market” around the corner that closed maybe 2 years ago. While the Gypsy seemed more in tune with the eclectic vibe of our urban ‘hood, neither its owner nor the owner of the Neighborhood Market struck me as being great business people, with solid plans for stability and growth. We need convenience stores downtown; we need local grocers; and we need supermarkets.

In Birmingham, for years we have heard the same argument. It goes like this: “Supermarket chains typically need approximately [insert high number here] people living within a 3-mile radius, and downtown is not ready yet. Not enough people.” More recently, there has been serious consideration of smaller, “urban footprint” type supermarkets that would be positioned geographically to serve both the north and south sides of central downtown–i.e. capturing the large UAB market to the southside.

What we’ve been missing is coordinated, professional efforts combined with incentives that other cities have used to induce supermarkets to come into areas traditionally avoided by chains that are oriented to the suburbs. Check out Greenlife Grocery in downtown Chattanooga which is like a mini-Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  And, unlike Birmingham, Chattanooga boasts a truly comprehensive, coordinated effort to induce a more mainstream supermarket into downtown: you can check out this executive summary from 2007 for a taste.

Cities cannot just wait for markets to come–they’ve got to get organized, aggressive, and in many cases offer incentives. Washington, DC has a specific incentive for inducing supermarkets to enter the city, which has had great success. I remember when the U Street neighborhood there was a relatively shabby area with no good supermarket. About 10 years ago the city passed their incentive law, and a developer put together a mixed-use project with Whole Foods as an anchor. The rest is history–the grocer helped spur retail and condo development across the neighborhood (although gentrification had started a few years earlier, Whole Foods accelerated it). Thanks to Maryland Route 5 for the pic:

Markets can be fantastic growth generators for neighborhoods. I think downtown can support both a full service supermarket, as well as at least a couple small convenience/local groceries, if they were done intelligently and backed by the right research and business plans. And, of course it would be nice if they could match the quirky vibe of downtown, as the Gypsy did manage to do.

And by the way, gentrification is a complex topic that will weave it’s way in and out of this blog. Suffice it to say that right now, downtown Birmingham has NO local grocers whatsoever, so we’re not talking about displacing local flavor with boring corporate chains. We’re talking about an essential service that’s needed. Now.