New Grocery Store Isn’t in Hill’s Near Future

Posted July 11, 2003 at 4:40pm

Capitol Hill residents say they’re traveling to Virginia for their groceries and they’re sick and tired of it.

Unfortunately, grocery outlets aren’t shouting from the windows, eager to enter what most people acknowledge as an underserved area.

“It’s not certain where they could go because there’s not land and a lot of parking,” said Ken Golding, a principal of the Stanton Development Corp., a Capitol Hill real estate development company.

According to Golding, supermarket chains are taking second looks at underserved urban areas because the suburban market is saturated with grocery stores.

But, paradoxically, the size and level of service suburban markets offer makes it impossible to open a smaller urban market. Customers take for granted a 55,000-square-foot market with extra amenities, said Greg TenEyck, spokesman for Safeway’s Eastern Division.

If retailers build a smaller grocery store because larger real estate parcels aren’t available, then customers “would shop other places, they would go to the suburbs,” he said.

Exhibit A of customer dissatisfaction with smaller markets might be the Safeway store at 14th Street Southeast and Potomac Avenue. Built before supermarkets swelled up in size to accommodate a dozen salad dressing brands and hundreds of cereals, some Hill residents say the market doesn’t meet their needs.

For example, there’s Wally Bonfield, a 35-year Hill resident and concierge at the Lowes L’Enfant Plaza Hotel, who said he regularly travels to the Virginia suburbs for his “major shopping.” What’s the local Safeway missing? “For instance, I like to buy large quantities of cleaning products,” he said. “They don’t sell large quantities, they just sell small jars.”

TenEyck said the Safeway in question is slated for a minor expansion, but “Overall in an urban environment, it’s difficult to accumulate the size property that is needed to build a modern supermarket.”

Retailers have to find the acreage to not only build a big store but also accommodate parking. TenEyck said retailers worry that customers “may chose to bypass your store” if they don’t have easy surface access.

Bill Rouchell, president of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals, said he’s heard that finding adequate parking is the main problem keeping grocery retailers from expanding. Rouchell said he shops in Pentagon City for his groceries. “I see a lot of Capitol Hill residents in Costco when I go there,” he said.

Golding said retailers are still interested in Capitol Hill. “The density is there. There is a dearth of grocery stores,” he said, but no one is aggressively looking.

Some Hill residents say they don’t necessarily need a big suburban store. Something small, like a Trader Joe’s, would suit Crystal Crittenden, a federal government worker who lives on the Hill. Trader Joe’s specializes in gourmet, organic and foreign eatables at reasonable prices.

She’s trying to start a letter-writing campaign by Hill residents to Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters, as evidence that potential customers live there. Crittenden first wrote the company herself, but she says the response was that a Capitol Hill location “wasn’t feasible, because of real estate prices and lack of potential clientele.”

Crittenden said grocery retailers place too heavy emphasis on the parking problem. “I think most people walk to stores in Capitol Hill. I think that’s why a lot of people move there,” she said.

Diane O’Conner, a Trader Joe’s spokeswoman, said that the supermarket chain is considering opening a branch in the District, but not necessarily on the Hill. “We’re flattered to hear that our customers in Capitol Hill are interested,” she said, but the company needs to make sure that “we’re growing responsibly.”

Parking could be a problem, she said. “That’s always an issue in an urban issue. That’s why we need to really take our time with it.”