Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New Downtown Grocery, Recipe for Success?

Today comes word that a new boutique grocery/cafe/bar concept is moving into 1500 Jackson, the space previously occupied by Urban Market.  This is great news for those of us who live downtown.  Having once lived in a loft above the previous grocery tenant, and as someone who looks upon living there as fondly as any other place I've lived in my 11 years in "the D," I can attest for the convenience of a full-service grocery but an elevator ride away (or a short walk for the rest of downtown's full-time residents).

However, we must remember the reasons the previous grocery failed.  First, it was subsidized to the tune of a few million each year by the city of Dallas due to the chicken/egg nature of residential population and need for grocery stores.  Once Dallas yanked its subsidy the grocery withered away.  I can't disagree with the city pulling off the training wheels.  Eventually, it has to ride on its own.

Downtown's redevelopment was facing bigger problems, also exemplified by the grocery itself.  Both the residential redevelopments and the grocery overshot the market, providing too much high-end, uptown-ish product.  The result is that many of the residential buildings changed hands through foreclosure and the rents had to come down to meet the market that wants to be in downtown.  Sure, that still means some high end incomes, but compared to uptown it's far more diverse from an age and income standpoint.  The people who move into downtown are either 1) looking specifically for said diversity and dislike the homogeny of uptown or 2) have been priced out of uptown (despite more interesting buildings and floorplans in downtown lofts).

The Urban Market tried to provide a boutique Whole Foods type of experience, but it ended up getting its clock cleaned by convenience stores like the half dozen 7-11s which then opened around downtown and perhaps more directly, the CVS on Main Street, which is about 25,000 square feet, a similar size to the Urban Market's grocery floor area.  More importantly, CVS had/has a far better location, right in the heart of the action with several residential buildings and hotels immediately nearby and in the middle of the highest foot traffic of all of downtown (if not all of Dallas?).

The question now is whether the new concept, which seems a lot like the original Urban Market concept, can stand the test of time, succeed, and become a stable anchor for which downtown Dallas can begin its second stage of redevelopment around (remember: chicken and egg).  Downtown's population has stagnated over the last few years and more disconcerting is that the night life seems to have really taken a nose dive over the last 6-12 months (I have no data to point to, just my Spidey sense having lived downtown for the past 6.5 years).

Based on previous quotes about the business, the partners point to an increase in downtown population as the justification for their investment.  This also concerns me because Urban Market was still open when the downtown residential population plateaued.  Sure, it may have opened when the population was only 2-3,000, but it also shuttered when population was much closer to what it is now, 6-7,000.

I don't say this to poo-poo the idea but rather the opposite.  To put the word out that if you live or work in downtown, be a patron to this business and a steward to downtown.  Now, that only goes as far as the business provides a positive service you're willing to return to.  Ultimately, Urban Market failed because once it lost its subsidy it tried to be a boutique CVS and that's a recipe for disaster when local business's only, ONLY advantage is repeat business through customer relations and experience.  To succeed, the new Urban Orchard has to be a third place, where residents want to spend time when not at home or work.  Even, it becomes a place where we'd RATHER be than home or work.

Many retailers have metrics they look at to establish a baseline of predictable success.  Let's compare the area of downtown Dallas now (based on what numbers are available) to typical data sets retailers look for.  We'll be using "ideal boutique conditions" for both neighborhood services AND food and beverage since the Urban Orchard concept entails both of those categories.  I won't combine the baseline data but use the higher of the two and compare it to the existing area (as far as readily available data allows).

The data we'll look at includes: Area Population, Median Income, Daytime Population, Education, Pedestrian Counts, Transit Accessibility, Traffic Counts, and Retail Competition.

Retail metrics (Met in green, unmet in red):

Area Population Needed:  10,000 w/in 1/2 mile

Actual:  I don't have the time to measure actual street and block distance but rather as the crow flies.  Depending on the numbers you read, downtown has anywhere between 6,000 and 7,400 people currently residing there.  Only those living in Arts District or Farmers Market are beyond 1/2 mile.  Either way, we're below the 10,000.

Could hotel population push us over the threshold?
Median Household Income Needed:  $65,000

Actual: Based on the three census tracts that cover the downtown area roughly in thirds sliced horizontally as Top, Middle, and Bottom, the median income is highest in the middle, the Main Street district, at $64K/year.  The top (Arts and West End) and the bottom, Farmers Market are both around $47k/year.  However, more than half the downtown population is in the Main Street core.  Putting the numbers together, the median income for all of downtown looks to be about $58k/year, slightly below the $65k.  However, it's worth pointing out that cost of living is below average in Dallas and these numbers are nationally skewed towards more expensive markets.  We'll call that a push?
Daytime Population Needed: 45,000 w/in 1/2-mile

Actual:  This is a tough one to figure out.  I can't find decent numbers on downtown's daytime population, let alone precisely within a half-mile of the Urban Orchard site.  The best I can find is from Dallas Visitors and Convention Bureau which mentions 110,000 daytime population within 1-mile of the CBD.  Does that mean a 1-mile radius from the center?  Or from the perimeter of the CBD.  If so, that's grabbing most of uptown and skewing the numbers.  Even if it's not, a 1-mile radius is 4x the area of a .5mile radius.  If we take 25% of the 110k number that would put us at 27,500.  Of course, that 110,000 isn't evenly distributed.  It's likely almost entirely in the central core of downtown or in the Crescent/uptown area.  So maybe half and say 55,000 would fall within 1/2-mile?  Pretty please?  Let's call it another push.
Education Needed: 45% bachelor's or higher w/in 1-mile

Actual:  I'm just going to use downtown population again to save some time.  Here, we're only at 33% of full-time residents with a bach or higher.  This is predictably highest in the Main Street area which also has the highest incomes of the area.  I'm not sure how to spin this more postively.  :(
Pedestrian counts Needed: 60/hour

Actual:  I have no idea.  There is no data.  But 60 seems awfully low and easily attainable.  We'll say yes!
Transit Accessbility: Train stop w/in 3 blocks

Actual:  Unfortunately "blocks" is an incredibly vague term.  Does that mean 600' superblocks or more pedestrian-scaled 300' long blocks?  Does that take into consideration 'pedestrian propulsion' and the concept that pedestrians we'll walk further in more comfortable and pleasing conditions?  Who knows.  However, the nearest DART station is 5 blocks away.
Traffic Counts Needed: 7500 per day

Actual:  The data is incredibly old here.  I'm talking 20-30 years old.  Jackson and Wood streets are the one-way couplet time forgot.  And the city as well.  What is available suggests each street of the couplet (which the Urban Orchard would have a presence on both) moves about 3-4,000 cars per day.  Adding the couplet together could get us there, yes?  We'll say yes.
Level of Competition:  There are several ways to look at this.  First, is the basic services to the area.  Second, is the level of service in relation.  And third, is the larger market shed.

Actual:  Right now, many could say Downtown is under-retailed because it is missing several segments like merchandise, apparel, etc.  However, those services require even far higher baseline metrics for population, income, accessibility than we're using here.  Those types of businesses work in regional centers of activity.  Unfortunately, downtown is caught in this netherworld of neighborhood scaled-mega office park.

In terms of restaurants, it is probably over-saturated when the tunnels are included, but once again, what's available isn't terribly varied.  The grocery would compete with the convenience stores and that competition will be fierce, however they're expecting to provide higher end service.  From downtown's perspective, they'll be all alone in that market, which then brings in the broader grocery/market-shed into play.

All of south Dallas below the downtown hemisphere is under-groceried but everything north is over-groceried.  However, the north Dallas grocery chains are creeping closer, as exemplified by the Whole Foods moving into Lower McKinney, just slightly over a mile north.  To succeed the Urban Orchard may very well have to pull from the food deserts of the south given the fierce competition for uptown residents and the downtown residents willing to travel a bit.

The only conclusion here is that it's muddy.  The only answer is competition and cannibalization are inevitable.  As such, it's best to provide either 1) best prices or 2) best service.
In each of the categories above, I asked more questions and blurred the black and white nature of metrics a bit, and intentionally so.  However, it isn't through metrics alone that businesses succeed, but with bravery and will and capability to test their concept.  Otherwise, no investment would ever happen.

Just because the somewhat arbitrary metrics don't currently stack in their favor doesn't mean it can't be successful.  Urban Orchard could be the catalyst to kick off the next phase of development, investment, and repopulation of downtown, that DART was for the first.  Who knows how many of these metrics the new grocery can push downtown Dallas over where it currently falls short.

Let's hope so.  Only time will tell, the best test of all.

It will need our help, but only so far as their service earns it.