Austinites looking to avoid waiting in line at the major grocery stores limiting their occupancy during the coronavirus pandemic are likely discovering just how useful it is to have a small grocery store or bodega with staple items available within walking distance of their homes. Local outlets like Fresh Plus, Wheatsville Co-Op, and Royal Blue Grocery are feeding the city without crowds and lines, since small stores inside neighborhoods don’t attract big-box traffic. Even some local restaurants are extending takeout beyond their menus and selling common pantry items to go.
But even though it seems we’re all thankful for these smaller operations in the thick of a crisis, the establishment of new neighborhood-scale grocery outlets in Austin is currently limited by the hamfisted zoning definitions of our city’s current land development code, and many properties that would otherwise be suitable for grocery stores are constrained by deed restrictions limited to non-commercial uses.
As the city struggles to update its code for the first time since the 1980s, District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison recently proposed an amendment to the new draft that would, in her words, “Consider opportunities for interior neighborhood commercial spaces to offer walkable access to basic amenities such as but not limited to daycares, pharmacies, neighborhood groceries, restaurants, and civic spaces.”
An inside look at Thom’s Market on Barton Springs Road.
Though the mechanism for this amendment isn’t entirely clear, it was awfully refreshing to see someone on Council acknowledge the importance of walkable intra-neighborhood amenities including groceries — unfortunately, city staff declined to recommend the change, saying that while the new code’s draft established new neighborhood commercial zones, they did not recommend “applying those zones outside of existing neighborhood commercial nodes until a subsequent district-level planning or rezoning occurs following code adoption.”
Kicking these decisions downstairs to district-level planning is a surefire way to give individual neighborhoods a lot of control over what gets built where, which wouldn’t be a problem if any of these people ever wanted to build anything anywhere ever. Unfortunately that’s not generally the case, historically speaking at least — concerns about traffic, or parking, or “compatibility” tend to win out over convenience, even though most new residents treasure these amenities once they’re built.
On the bright side, District 2 Council Member Delia Garza also proposed an amendment to the code that would allow small neighborhood grocers to operate in all zoning categories with a conditional use permit, and based on this proposal staff revised the draft code to allow food sales in all Residential House-Scale and Residential Multi-Unit zones — with a conditional use permit, of course. It’s not as drastic as Harper-Madison’s proposal might have been, but it’s the right direction.
Though the new code’s still trapped in limbo, it’s good to see these members of City Council recognize the importance of neighborhood grocery access on some level, and we really hope after things return to semi-normal around here people don’t immediately forget how nice it was — or, perhaps more critically, how nice it would be — to walk down to the corner for some soup rather than getting in the car and waiting in line. That soup might cost a little more than you’d find at Walmart, but it’s a price many Austinites are clearly willing to pay — if we would just work to make these stores possible in more of our beloved neighborhoods, that is.