I often have conversations with others about what it’s going to take to get people to live downtown. The discussion can range from housing to safety to transportation to affordability. But one of the more puzzling opinions I encounter is that people won’t live downtown unless there is a grocery store. Without this amenity, residential cannot take hold in Downtown Stockton, or so the argument goes.
I understand and respect these views, but I wholeheartedly disagree. While some may base their housing decisions on proximity to packaged foods and laundry detergent, the revitalization of Downtown Stockton is not predicated on the presence of a grocery store. It’s true that a large grocery store would certainly be a catalyst for downtown residential, but it’s definitely not a requirement. Based on their housing preferences over the last 20 years, Stocktonians have shown that it doesn’t really matter if they are close to a supermarket or not when it comes to choosing where to live. Let’s stop fooling ourselves into thinking that Stocktonians are so picky that we refuse to live anywhere without a grocery store.
Case in point, the lack of grocery stores has hardly impeded growth in newer Stockton developments elsewhere in the city. Largely recognized as Stockton’s ritziest neighborhood, Brookside has no grocery store. None. Yet homes in this area regularly sell for well above average, with some valued higher than one million dollars. Rents are far above average as well. Ten thousand people live in the Brookside census tract, and somehow they manage to survive without a grocery store. The nearest is the S-Mart on the other side of I-5 on March Lane. For some residents, the drive to this S-Mart is more than two and a half miles away. But when Brookside was built, I have a hard time believing anyone said no one would live there because there wasn’t a supermarket in close proximity.
An even better example lies in the area near Eight Mile Road where residents are not just marooned from a supermarket, they have almost no amenities to speak of whatsoever. The nearest grocery stores are on Hammer Lane (Raley’s) and the Wal-Mart Super Center as well as Target in Trinity Parkway. For many families, these two options are up to four or five miles away. As one family member once described to me, getting groceries from North Stockton feels like “going into town just to get milk.” But even that trek didn’t deter the roughly 22,000 people who decided to make North Stockton their home despite no grocery store in sight.
That brings us to downtown. While there is no grocery store squarely in the neighborhood, there are two within two miles: Food 4 Less in Eastland Plaza and S-Mart on Pacific and Alpine. In theory, that means a resident of Downtown Stockton is closer to a grocery store than most people who live in the Brookside or Spanos areas.
Yes, one of the points of living in an urban core is being able to walk to amenities and use your car less. It would be fantastic to have a grocery store downtown and hopefully one day we will get there. But a grocery store is not a requirement to downtown residential success, at least not initially. In other cities, the renewal of neighborhoods takes hold well before a national supermarket chain takes notice and decides to make an investment in the area. The same will most likely be true of Stockton.
This brings me to another point: Downtown Stockton will succeed as a residential destination because it has historic character, waterfront views, a classic grid layout and an authentic sense of place. It’s a real urban core. We won’t get people to relocate to downtown simply by replicating the comforts of suburbia, such as a grocery store.
Supermarkets as we know them are an inherently suburban amenity. They take up around 30,000 square feet and require hundreds of parking spots (that go mostly unused), not to mention easy alley access to deliver food in a seamless and timely matter. All of these prerequisites make it hard for grocers to commit to dense, urban areas without a strong base of people living there first. Many downtown areas lack a grocery store anchoring their communities, yet they continue to thrive. Instead, things like public markets, food co-ops and farmers markets are what drive the cores of other cities.
In our case, I don’t think the absence of a grocery store is what’s holding downtown back. A grocery store would certainly make it a much more attractive destination, but we don’t need one to get the first wave of people to move into Downtown Stockton.