Friday, October 3, 2008

Food Retailing & Society Memo: In Philadelphia Designers Create Supermarkets of the Future; Meanwhile A Local Food Retailing Icon is Lost

The proposed concept for the Brewerytown market above avoids the traditional big-box style for a design that fits into the urban street grid and camouflages the large expanse of parking.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Editor's Note: Two stories, published just six days apart in the Philadelphia Inquirer USA newspaper, paint an interesting picture of the dynamic nature of the food and grocery retailing business.

As the piece below by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron describes, visionary designers are busy dreaming up the supermarket of the future for urban Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the second story by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Vernon Clark reports on the closing of 100-year old Caruso's Market, a beloved, small-format neighborhood grocery store.

We offer no analysis or commentary this time around. The two articles speak for themselves.

Changing Skyline: Food for thought on supermarkets

By Inga Saffron
Philadelphia Inquirer Architecture Critic

If we are what we eat, then it follows that our cities are shaped by the buildings that sell what we eat. In that case, we're heading for trouble.

After a long absence, the neighborhood supermarket is making a comeback in urban places like Philadelphia. Only the new arrivals don't look anything like the friendly local grocers we once knew. In quick succession, a gang of boxy, suburban-scaled cornucopias has moved into the thick of Philly's rowhouse neighborhoods. They've laid claim to whole blocks at 56th and Market, 52d and Parkside, Columbus Boulevard in Pennsport. And more are coming.

You might assume that the more stores that sell fresh food, the better - especially given that Philadelphians struggle with their collective weight, at least according to certain out-of-town list-makers.

The problem is that these new supermarkets tend toward obesity themselves. It's hard to overlook all that bulk when the chains dock their flagship boxes in a marina's worth of parking. And once you breach the store's solid walls, you could as easily be in Fairbanks as Fairmount.

So a competition to encourgage architects to think outside the supermarket box comes in the nick of time. The Community Design Collaborative asked three Philadelphia architects to come up with more urban-friendly structures for our modern hunting and gathering.

To keep the exercise from devolving into the abstract, the collaborative identified three sites that have already been targeted for food stores, two in Philadelphia and one in Chester. It also partnered the architects with real clients. Even if none of the three gets built, the design exercise provides the food retailers with alternatives they can chew on.

The most exciting concept was developed by Interface Studio Architects, which pulled the most ambitious of the three projects. The firm was asked to design a new full-service supermarket for developer John Westrum at 31st and Girard, in the Brewerytown neighborhood.

Westrum had been trying to bring a supermarket to the three-acre triangular lot ever since he completed Brewerytown Square, a townhouse project. But it's been difficult because the site has only the tiniest bit of frontage on Girard Avenue, the area's commercial street. The property also sits on a steeply sloped bluff overlooking the east side of Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill. You can practically see the Philadelphia Zoo on the opposite bank.

Panoramic views are nice, but what supermarkets really need is to be able to broadcast their presence to passersby. The usual box, set behind a welcome mat of parking, would be nearly invisible to motorists and pedestrians traveling on Girard Avenue. In any case, that highway model is unworthy of a grand urban street that is still a mix of townhouses and independent stores.

Interface, led by partner Brian Phillips, solved the problem in a way that goes beyond just reimagining the utilitarian supermarket; its design has real architectural heft. The proposal clicks because it acknowledges the supermarket's dual nature as a car-oriented business that happens to be located in a multifaceted pedestrian neighborhood.

Since there is so little frontage on Girard Avenue, the designers bent the main commercial structure into two angled sections that wrap their wings around the corner of 31st and Girard. The section closest to Girard would provide small retail spaces for things like a bank, and the northern portion would house a midsize supermarket.

Though their angular form breaks from Philadelphia's street-wall tradition, it compensates for the deviation by offering the neighborhood a substanial plaza that works as a pocket park. At the hinge, where the two wings come together, the plaza slides down under the buildings, providing sight lines and walking ramps to the parking lot at the low end of the slope.

Because of that sharp incline, the supermarket floor would be below the level of 31st Street. Interface turns the problem into a virtue. An all-glass facade would enable arriving pedestrians to see into the store, while a sequence of switchback ramps would move them gently down to the store entrance. Since the parking lot is at the entrance level, customers who drive would have easy access.

This jaunty arrangement solves the site's problems in one stroke. The designers use the level change to screen the parking lot from the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the swooping roof becomes the building's can't-miss sign.

And by splitting the commercial structure into two sections, Interface avoids the bulkiness of the box. With their glass facades, the structures resemble park pavilions, which is what they are, since they overlook Kelly Drive.

Like Interface, the other firms that participated in the design exercise, Agoos Lovera and KSS, recognized that supermarkets are about more than just food. They're neighborhood anchors. Interface included housing at the north end of its site. The supermarket's sinuous roof winds around, jumping onto a third structure that would contain loft apartments.

Because the other projects involved retrofits of existing buildings, there was less opportunity for the designers to reinvent the supermarket form. Nevertheless, in its three-stage scheme for turning an Ogontz Avenue rowhouse in West Oak Lane into a satellite for the Weavers Way food co-op, Agoos Lovera sketched a plan that includes a meeting room, a demonstration kitchen, and a community garden. KSS came up with a nearly identical program for an old furniture store on Chester's Avenue of the States, purchased by a Chester food co-op. In the future, they believe, food stores will be community hubs.

At the moment, most people see supermarket shopping as a necessary chore. But who knows? If these designers can open the eyes of store operators, we just might start to look forward to the weekly shopping trip.

Caruso's Market closes in Chestnut Hill
By Vernon Clark
Inquirer Staff Writer, October 1, 2008

It was a boutique grocery that specialized in quality meats and produce, and that anchored the Chestnut Hill shopping strip for nearly a century.

Last month, Caruso's Market, 8418-24 Germantown Ave. (pictured above), closed abruptly, leaving many residents recalling bygone days of personal service and a family-friendly atmosphere, and wondering what will become of the property.

Fran O'Donnell, head of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, lamented the loss.

"I think the closing brought great concern to the community as far as being a fixture there, but also as a necessity," O'Donnell said. "It's not like another retailer. This is servicing what you put on your table."

Ellen Maher, 78, who has lived most of her life in Chestnut Hill, was a regular shopper there for decades.

"It was always a very nice market," Maher said. "They did delivery service. It was an alternative to the supermarket. My husband and I always walked to Caruso's."

Residents said the store's windows were covered with brown paper on the night of Sept. 15 and a sign posted that read, "Closed for repairs." A day later the sign was replaced with one saying, "Sorry for the inconvenience. Reopening soon."

The next day the sign was changed to "Sorry for the inconvenience. Closed until further notice."

CMS Cos., an investment company in Wynnewood, issued a statement saying that John Capoferri, the market's operator, "had terminated the Caruso's Market lease," making way for a CMS affiliate to take control of the property.

Capoferri did not respond to several phone messages left for him.

Capoferri bought the 10,000-square-foot building in the spring.

The market was operated for decades by the Marano family, owners of a South Philadelphia pasta business, said Joe Marano, who operates Marano's Fort Washington Garden Mart.

Marano said Caruso was the name of relatives who opened the market in the early 1900s.

"Despite attempts over the prior several weeks to work with Mr. Capoferri to help restructure his financial obligations at the property, we concluded it was in our investors' best interest to take control of the building," said Richard T. Aljian, a CMS official.

He also said the company was preparing the building for "re-leasing, with a grocery-store concept remaining a potential strategy."

O'Donnell said residents want another grocery at the site.

"I think in a community like this, there has to be an outreach to make sure that it stays just the same use," O'Donnell said. "Whether it's Caruso's or not, we want it to still be a food market."

Paul Dodge, owner of the French Bakery on Germantown Avenue, said the closure was a major blow to the community.

"So many older people really rely on the local businesses," Dodge said. "A loss like this is devastating. Who can open a grocery store?"

Dodge said that at the holidays, customers would flock to the store.

"On Thanksgiving they had hundreds of turkey orders," he said. "Caruso's Market was like a dinosaur in many ways."

Philip LeCalsey, an official of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, said that many in the neighborhood want the market to be replaced by one similar to Caruso's.

"Having a neighborhood grocery for such a long time . . . has been a big asset to Chestnut Hill residents," LeCalsey said.

He said he had been a regular customer at Caruso's.

"I was in there usually twice a day, getting coffee in the morning and getting lunch," he said.

Marie Chiodo, who has lived in Chestnut Hill for more than 50 years, worried about the future of the store.

"It was very convenient," Chiodo said. "Now, who knows what's going to happen? I hope they come back and reopen."

Standing outside the store with her infant daughter, Tessa, in a stroller, Katie Maier, a Chestnut Hill resident for about 31/2 years, also regretted the closing.

"I think it's a shame that it closed. There is nowhere else here where I can go to get a few things," Maier said. "I was here last week and ordered a roast. They said the butcher was going to call me, and the next day they were shut."

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