Supermarkets – the new drivers of urban growth
14 May 2010
Supermarkets have become major players in building and shaping places. Retailers don’t just want to build a supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing, shopping streets and schools.
While the economic downturn has impacted heavily upon most development, the major retailers have gone from strength to strength. Supermarkets are increasingly being built on prime sites in an urban setting, rather than out of town, and investment in the site goes well beyond building a big retail shed.
CABE has reviewed more than 30 supermarket-led large mixed use schemes and we have criticised schemes designed primarily to deliver the functions of the store rather than making a credible part of town. For instance, too often the provision of parking drives the layout of the site, and compromises design. And the housing can seem like an afterthought: you may have to cross over loading bays to reach your front door, and have no outdoor space beyond the car park.
So why do local authorities give consent even when faced with poor design? They are under pressure. Inward investment is much coveted in an economic downturn, and this kind of development can bring with it much needed affordable homes and community facilities. Supermarkets are also powerfully resourced organisations when it comes to obtaining planning permission.
Yet the local authority really can be the ring master. If investment is in short supply they must make it go even further, which means ensuring that any new retail-led development will create an attractive environment, contributing to local character and to local prosperity. The consent to build brings huge value and economic opportunities for the developer and it should not be given too easily.
Large schemes like these have a significant impact on existing retail centres. Local authorities have the opportunity, within their core strategy, to be very clear about where they believe mixed use, large scale development will underpin and not undermine the existing retail offer. If they are clear about ideal location and the quality expected, it gives them more strength in their negotiations with developers. It also means developers know what is expected.
There are very few built-out mixed-use schemes to look at yet, and even fewer that are also inspirational. CABE has developed some guidance for supermarkets, to improve design, and this is summarised below.
In essence, the scheme must suit the site and integrate well into its neighbourhood. It needs to provide a decent environment for residents. It should be energy efficient, and minimise parking. Above all, major retailers need to recognise the complexity of investing in mixed use development, and the long term commitment involved.
How to arrive at better design
First, the proposed development must not be too bulky for the neighbourhood, and must be tailored to the site. The balance between the supermarket and residential and community use needs careful thought, and the developer should not reach for a standard floorplan off the shelf.
In this scheme in Epsom, for example, Tesco has proposed too much development for the site, and too much car parking (nearly 500 spaces in an accessible town centre location). The design will not make for a lively street frontage, with advertising hoardings at ground floor level. The housing units above are backed up against the store, so all their windows face north.
Second, a large mixed use scheme should be integrated into its neighbourhood. Too often the new streets are primarily defined by the traffic and parking requirements of the store.
In Bromley-by-Bow, in east London, a new district centre is proposed based on a Tesco-led masterplan (below). When CABE reviewed it in February 2010, we found it gave priority to the store rather than responding to the bigger design challenge of creating a successful and sustainable neighbourhood. For instance, a residential tower is positioned right next to the heavily trafficked A12 where noise and air quality are at their worst, and views are dominated by the road and roofs of the store and petrol station. Although a primary school is provided, it is tacked on to the delivery yard at the end of the store and access crosses a busy car park and service yard entrance.
This proposed scheme in Fulham, west London, will contribute to a lively street including entrances for the residents off the street, and no blank walls. The designers have integrated the store into a network of streets so that the box of the store is hidden by homes and smaller units around it. Instead of the supermarket store totally dominating the main street, its front door is limited to what is needed as an entrance and retains an existing older building as part of the new street frontage.
Third, supermarket schemes should reflect a long-term strategy to minimise environmental impact, and energy use. This is not the same as bolt-on features, such as a lonely wind turbine or timber cladding. It means having a fundamental plan for how different uses can work together. Building above the store, for example, severely restricts the opportunity to light or ventilate the sales floor naturally, which is common for stores on the continent. This store in East Tyrol, Austria, shows how natural light can change the shopping experience.
Fourth, supermarket-led housing developments should provide a high quality environment for residents. This includes clear and safe access routes to their homes and a real ‘address’ – a proud and visible front door to the apartments from the street. CABE often instead sees proposals where residents are obliged to walk round the back of the store past the delivery bays to enter their homes. There should always be high quality amenity space for residents, for instance at podium level, and a clear division between routes for the shopping public and the residents’ private world.
CABE has been critical of many standard solutions to providing housing. The basic, crude approach is to superimpose it on the store box. This results in a poor living environment: flats are, for example, often single aspect (particularly grim if those windows face north).
It is perfectly possible to arrive at inventive solutions which accommodate housing. The housing in Grimshaw’s scheme for Sainsbury in Camden Town is almost 25 years old and still bears out the original ambition - for well designed, distinctive housing on the Regent’s Canal. It shows that well-designed stores can make a lasting contribution to a city.
Fifth, parking must be minimised: we are, after all, talking about prime urban sites with public transport and other feasible alternatives to using the car. Store customer car parking and access to delivery bays can dominate pedestrian routes and public space. All new schemes need to be considered, with the local authority, as part of parking provision across the town centre. Supermarkets need to work with their prospective communities to share car parking space, and consider incentive schemes to manage shopping peaks. It can also mean thinking more imaginatively: at some Waitrose stores, for instance, cyclists can hire shopping baskets on wheels.
Supermarkets need to work with their prospective communities to share car parking space, and consider incentive schemes to manage shopping peaks. It can also mean thinking more imaginatively: at some Waitrose stores, for instance, cyclists can hire shopping baskets on wheels.
Finally, CABE is working with the supermarkets to explore how the future of retail impacts on design. Internet shopping might, for instance, mean that the traditional retail floorspace will shrink, with more space needed for service deliveries. So supermarkets need to look beyond their standard 5 -10 year business plans, and build flexibility into the construction of the store box to allow for change.
Residential development above cavernous retail units raises a serious issue. These will be redundant long before the homes built on top of them - then what will happen?
So building homes is a long term commitment. Mixed use development, with all its different ownership structures, is vastly more complex than a retail box, and new thinking is needed to protect its long term value, for the developer and the community.