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Healthy Corner Stores - Past and Present

March 25, 2013 

Category:  Development Types

Healthy Corner Stores - Past and Present

In the first half of the 20th century, the corner “Mom and Pop” grocery store and the neighborhood pharmacy were common fixtures in communities across the U.S. The neighborhood store was a gathering place for the community, and residents could walk to the stores for groceries and other needs. These neighborhood stores were friendly places, where you could get items needed at the spur of the moment. Children walked to these stores for penny candy or comic books.

Besides small grocery stores, corner stores include specialty shops, ethnic markets, bodegas, and convenience stores. Corner stores typically range in size from about 400 square feet to 5,000 square feet. Many of the older corner stores were early examples of mixed use, with commercial below and residential above. Often the store owners lived above the shop.

Why have we lost so many of our corner stores and store buildings? Following World War II and the rising use of automobiles, it became practical for people to drive to large grocery stores that could provide a wide array of foods and basic household needs. Large chain stores like Safeway, A&P, QFC, and other regional and national stores became common.  Small neighborhood grocers lost business to the large chain stores. At about the same time, local zoning laws were adopted that separated residential areas from potential conflicts with commercial and industrial uses, and single family areas became viewed as sacrosanct. One example is Davenport, Iowa.  Davenport had 167 corner grocery stores in the 1940s; there were only six known corner grocery stores and butcher shops by 2011.[i]  This same story of the loss of the corner neighborhood store has been played out in many cities, large and small, in Washington State and throughout the U.S.

Some residential neighborhoods in older communities still retain traditional corner stores that serve local residents. Many former grocery store buildings have been converted to other uses such as coffee shops, hair salons, art, dance, and yoga studios, and apartments. Too often corner store buildings have been torn down in areas zoned for more intensive (and profitable) commercial and multifamily uses. Many of the stores that remain in residential zoning districts have been “grandfathered,” allowed to continue operating as long as they remained active, even when they would not be allowed under current zoning regulations.

In recent years, two trends have led to a re-examination of the role of the corner store in urban and suburban neighborhoods and to a resurgence of interest in small neighborhood stores. These are (1) the concern about healthy food, including locally produced food; and (2) an emphasis on smart growth principles, such as walkable communities, mixed use, and infill development. As suburban and new cities develop at higher densities, there is increasing interest in stores within walking or biking distance in these communities as well.

The movement toward healthy food and healthy corner stores has resulted from a concern about health, obesity, the proliferation of fast food restaurants, and a perceived lack of access to healthy foods in low-income areas. First Lady Michelle Obama has made healthy food a national priority, spearheading the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI). The HFFI supports projects that increase access to healthy, affordable food in communities that lack these options. Also, the Healthy Corner Stores Network aims to increase the availability and sales of healthy, affordable foods through small-scale stores in underserved communities throughout the U.S. The cities of Seattle, Spokane, and Vancouver have active healthy corner store programs.

Neighborhood corner stores are consistent with local smart growth principles. Smart growth is development that is environmentally sensitive, economically viable, community-focused, and sustainable. Smart growth promotes compact communities that are attractive, livable, and walkable, with reduced dependence on the automobile. Corner stores provide convenient access to groceries and other basic needs within walking distance of local residents. Neighborhood stores can play a key role in local economic development by attracting people and adding interest to street activity, as well as providing local character.

Increasingly, the benefits of corner stores are being recognized, including:
  • Convenient access to groceries and other basic needs within walking or biking distance of local residents, including low-income neighborhoods where fewer supermarkets and healthy food options are available
  • Foods and other goods of interest to the local market (e.g., ethnic food)
  • Preservation of existing store buildings that contribute to the historic character of a neighborhood
  • Places to meet neighbors and help build a sense of community
  • Contribution to neighborhood revitalization and local economic development
  • Potential role in crime prevention due to increased street activity
  • Probable reduction in harmful vehicle emissions if less driving is needed for local shopping
  • Potential reduction in concerns about neighborhood parking since corner stores require little or no parking
  • Potential increase in physical fitness due to increased walking and bicycling

How can existing corner stores and store buildings be preserved and new stores developed?  The following are a number of actions that communities can take in encouraging the development and retention of corner stores.[ii]
  • Allow corner stores in residential zones subject to certain requirements that include size, location, design, and compatibility with residential use. Santa Monica, California, allows corner stores in multifamily residential areas subject to standards addressing location, structure, maximum size, and hours of operations and deliveries.
  • Permit corner stores on residential streets if they are located in buildings that were originally designed and built for them.  Peoria, Illinois, allows these stores in a special residential district.
  • Allow retention and expansion of stores located in historic buildings (typically former stores) in single or multifamily residential zones subject to certain criteria. Seattle allows conditional uses for landmark buildings in residential and other zoning districts.
  • Encourage corner stores in mixed-use residential/commercial districts through plan policies and zoning regulations.
  • Permit corner stores at intersections in residential areas and/or limit their frontage on a block or their number in a neighborhood. Austin, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Berkeley are allowing these types of corner stores.
  • Provide financial incentives to those interested in developing or upgrading corner stores (such as grants, loans, and tax benefits). The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing project attracted fresh-food retail investment in underserved communities by providing one-time grant and loan financing.
  • Streamline licensing and permit processing for corner stores.
  • Ensure that economic development programs support the continued operation of small neighborhood stores and promote their development.
  • Limit the size of retail development projects, including big-box retail, in specific neighborhoods (neighborhood business districts, downtowns, etc.).

Communities should consider several other issues in developing and ensuring the economic viability of corner stores. Corner stores may need assistance in procuring healthy, fresh produce, and other locally-grown food. Some corner stores may need ongoing support and incentives (loans, financial incentives, technical assistance) to help them become economically viable. To gain the acceptance of residents, consider steps to regulate the appearance and management of corner stores (see Austin, Texas, Special Use Infill Options and Design Tools—The corner store special use allows a small retail use on a property at an intersection with residential zoning).

Cities are turning back to the corner stores of the past, with a new healthy emphasis and as part of building sustainable communities.

Resources for Additional Information on Corner Stores


Washington State Communities—Healthy Corner Store Programs and Zoning for Corner Stores

Activities in Other States

[i] “So long to the corner grocer,” by Bill Wundrum, QuadCity Times, May 18, 2011

[ii] Many of these ideas are from “The Corner Store as an Element of Smart Growth,” by Sidney Brower, Smart Growth @10 Conference Paper 22, Center for Smart Growth and Resources for the Future, October 2007

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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