New Seasons Market hosted an open house this morning for the media and community members to get a sneak peek into their new store on North Williams Avenue. I wouldn’t usually devote my morning to the opening of a new grocery store, but given the location of this store and its potential to impact the streets around it — from both a public space and traffic operation perspective — I figured it was worth getting an insider look. (Disclaimer: New Seasons is a BikePortland advertiser.)
What I found was a very pleasant surprise: New Seasons staff and management has made public space, community access, and bicycling convenience a top priority in the layout/design and retail offerings of their new store.
Set to open August 28th, the new store is located in the northern half of the lot bound by Fremont, Vancouver and Williams. It’s smack dab in the middle of one of the busiest bicycle corridors in the city and the evening rush hour on N Cook (to the south) and Williams is widely known as a chaotic headache for both drivers and riders. And the traffic demands will only intensify in the coming months as there are many new commercial and residential buildings popping up all over the place (including on the south end of the lot shared by New Seasons).
Unfortunately, construction of the Williams Avenue Traffic Operations and Safety project — which will bring new traffic signals and a completely new layout of Williams Ave — won’t begin until summer of 2014 (a full two years after a citizen committee approved the final design).
We’ll share more about the traffic and access issues once the store opens. For now, let’s focus on the store itself, which I toured today with Assistant Store Manager Jen Soltero.
The biggest thing I took away from today’s tour was how the new store will (hopefully) “activate” the streetscape. On the Williams side of the store, near the 30 bike racks on the northeast corner, is a heated (via overhead gas lamps), covered seating area. A marble, outdoor chess table is also on the way. In addition, New Seasons’ Operations Manager Elizabeth Nardi shared with me that they will place tables, chairs and even a few rocking chairs, on the Fremont (north side) sidewalk.
And something I didn’t realize before this morning was that there will be a store entrance on Fremont near the corner at Williams. My hunch is that this smaller “rear” entrance will become the preferred entry for bike riding customers. If you’re heading north on Williams, Instead of making the difficult merge to access the main driveway in the middle of the lot (or heaving your bike up and over the curb once the bike path is placed on the left side), I’d recommend continuing to Fremont, then using the crosswalk and curb ramp to access the sidewalk near the rear entrance. If headed to the store from Vancouver (or Fremont for that matter), I’d also recommend using the sidewalk. This means you’ll never have to interact with what will surely be a crowded and hectic parking lot at the front entrance.
Just inside the rear entrance will be a set of lockers specifically for biking customers. This is an idea I’ve worked on with New Seasons with the aim of making shopping easier for folks that have a bunch of gear (panniers, rain coats, and so on) they don’t want to leave on their bikes. The new lockers haven’t arrived yet, but Nardi tells me there will be 10 spots to start with. They’ll be 30-inches tall (high enough to hang a coat), 12-inches wide, 18-inches deep, and will have a lock that can be reset after each use.
The east side of the store also has something new for New Seasons: A “community room” complete with a fireplace (!) and a roll-down wall for privacy. This room came in response to neighbors who wanted a place to hold meetings and other gatherings. It will be available at no charge and by reservation. Another community request resulted in a lot of windows facing the street, which means the store will be open and exposed to the hustle-and-bustle of the neighborhood.
Assistant Manager Jen Soltero also said they purposely laid out the east side of the store for quick access by customers that just want to grab a few things and go (behavior, Soltero said, that lines up with their typical biking customer). There are express registers and grab-and-go foods on the east side and there’s a register near the rear entrance.
As Soltero gave us the tour, she mentioned how New Seasons’ offerings are specifically tailored to customers who bike. The bulk foods section is popular with bike riders, she pointed out, because they can get smaller amounts of things like dog food. There’s even New Seasons’ first-ever grab-and-go meats section, which Soltero said is perfect for customers to “just throw some ground beef into their bike bag” (she was speaking to the group, not just me, when she said that). The beer and wine offerings are also tailored to biking and walking customers. “We’re trying to phase out 12-packs,” Soltero told our group, “and use more cans so that they’re easier to pack and lighter to throw into a bike bag or walk home with.”
Another cool touch is the automated, oversized water bottle filling machine. This nifty feature of the store’s drinking fountain automatically fills up tall bottles, which makes filling bike bottles and those popular re-usable bottles much easier (and it also keeps a running tally of how many bottles it has filled).
New Seasons has also considered how freight access will impact traffic around their store. They’re trying to “slot” all their deliveries, meaning vendors with big trucks will have a scheduled delivery time. This, Nardi pointed out, will prevent several large trucks from idling and clogging up the streets at the same time. They’re also starting deliveries very early in the morning (5:00 am) to avoid the morning rush hour on Vancouver. (Note: Large delivery truck access will be on the Vancouver (west) side of the lot.) “In general, we try to consolidate our deliveries to have fewer large trucks,” said Nardi.
As I left the store this morning, I noticed a nice design touch in the auto parking lot. There’s a large and paved hump at the entry to the parking stalls. This is something commonly used to calm neighborhood traffic in the Netherlands and I think it will help make the parking lot a bit more sane.
Overall, I came away impressed with how much thought and follow-through New Seasons demonstrated in terms of making their store accessible to bicycling and to the community in general.
As for the traffic operations issues, there will be tricky transition period until the new, left-side bike path is constructed next summer. I recommended to New Seasons that they consider proactive solutions to encourage good road user behaviors (like sandwich board messages along Williams for instance). Another issue will be creating an easier transition from the bike path to the bike racks. New Seasons staff is interested in creating ramps from the street up onto the sidewalk and hopefully PBOT will be too.