When I first heard about the plan for a new Publix on North Market Street, I was quite pleased. Publix is my go-to grocery store, and it seemed like a natural fit for the proposed location.
As more information about the plan—and about folks’ feelings about the plan—became available, however, I found myself questioning whether or not it was in the neighborhood’s best interests. Sure, I love our weekly trips to the store in East Brainerd, but I also love the North Shore. Would a store like Publix really work there? I’ve followed the news about this plan very closely and have done my best to consider the countless opinions I’ve heard and read as I’ve formed my own.
By all accounts, residents who live closest to the proposed location have been overwhelmingly in favor of Publix moving in since the project was first mentioned. They complain of having to drive (or take taxis) farther than they’d like to in order to shop at the closest full-service grocery store. They think the store is needed, and local leaders agree.
City Councilwoman Deborah Scott thinks the development “will be a win for the city from a tax perspective, a win for the residents from a health perspective, a win for businesses [all the way] around."
Mayor Ron Littlefield says the Publix will be an obvious improvement on the vacant land and abandoned structures that currently occupy the site. Like Scott, he also cites the “food desert” in the area and says the store will be more affordable than the Whole Foods store down the street.
By and large, critics of the plan don’t so much oppose the store being built as much as they oppose how it’s being built, going so far as accusing the North Shore Design Review Committee of ignoring its own standards.
"To me, what we're trying to do with urban design guidelines [is] we're trying to make sure what we build in the North Shore is of the same character of what we cherish, what's already there," argued urban designer Blythe Bailey at a public meeting about the project last week. "The idea for new development is you continue that pattern. That's my best dissent to this."
During a recent visit to Chattanooga, urbanist Joe Minicozzi, whose efforts contributed to the revitalization of Asheville, N.C., commented on the project, saying tax revenue and jobs per acre are far higher in mixed-use developments than in single-story, single-use buildings like the proposed Publix.
"You can't help but think [that] we can do better," said Jim Johnson, a dissenting resident who also spoke up last week about the need for a mixed-use facility similar to the one Minicozzi proposed. "It's not that this development goes too far; it's that it doesn't go far enough."
Brandi Hill, the only member of the committee to vote against the project, says the purpose of the committee is to “preserve the development that has already been started in the North Shore. It's to maintain that integrity.”
She says that “it’s important that we stick to those guidelines and make sure that the development that's proposed is going to be giving back to the community ... once the current tenants move on to other things.”
Hill says the store design is “not consistent with the rest of the district,” but city leaders say they followed the necessary steps and took input from the public.
“There are some compromises here, but I don’t think we’ve violated any principles,” said Littlefield, himself a former planner.
With the committee’s approval last week, crews will soon break ground on the 46,000-square-foot project. The single-story facility will have an old-school warehouse feel and face away from downtown and toward a parking lot similar in size to those at the East Brainerd and Ooltewah locations.
So, the project is going to happen. There will be a big-box grocery store with a huge parking lot on North Market Street, and there is nothing we can do to change it. Most folks will welcome the store. Some say they plan to boycott it. Others, who might not be ecstatic about the plan, are making an effort to view the project in a positive light.
Urbanist Christian Rushing, who has worked with the Urban Design Studio, has voiced concerns that a large parking lot on Market Street would turn the pedestrian-friendly area into “a place that's about cars, not about people," but he has also voiced the opinion that not all buildings are permanent, and even a huge parking lot can eventually transform into something else.
"Today's parking lot is tomorrow's developable site," he says. "While the concept is kind of lame for us today, maybe that's an opportunity for somebody else in a future generation."
Of all the opinions I’ve heard and read about the project, however, the most measured one belongs to North Shore Merchants Collective President David Smotherman. Smotherman, who owns Winder Binder Gallery and Bookstore on Frazier Avenue and lives on the North Shore, told Nooga.com that, although he has mixed feelings about the project—like he did when Walgreens moved in—and would rather see the area filled with small, local, independent businesses, he’s actually pleased about Publix moving in.
“I was really against Walgreens [at first],” he says. “But it’s actually been a convenience—as much as you hate the big corporate places, I felt like they made a lot of concessions.”
Smotherman is rooting for Publix to be a success and says that the store is “far enough away” from Frazier Avenue that it won't negatively affect the vibe there.
So, I spent time sifting through countless reports and opinions on the plan, and I’m left with a list of questions:
Will the new Publix please everyone? No.
Will it improve the quality of life for many people in the area? Yes.
Will the additional automobile and truck traffic negatively impact the ability of that portion of the street from becoming more pedestrian-friendly? Most likely.
If all of the committees’ design requests had been included with the original proposal, would people still complain about a big-box grocery store moving in because they think big-box stores are evil? Most definitely.
Could a different design bring in more revenue? It certainly looks that way.
If Publix doesn’t move in, are there are any other proposed developments on the horizon for that site? Not that I’m aware of.
Does the current plan seem like a reasonable compromise? Sure.
Does the city have bigger issues to deal with right now? Yes.
I think my mind is made up now. Thanks for helping me work through this.
Bill Colrus writes about local news, culture, music and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 3:50 p.m. on 11/14/12 for clarity.