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Will downtown Grand Rapids get a major grocery store?

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The explosion of housing development in downtown Grand Rapids has started a number of conversations about the general livability factor of the city and the lack of grocery availability in that area of the city. From data made available by JPMorgan Chase this summer, we know that downtown residents make 80 percent of their purchases outside the downtown area and that the Knapp's Corner Meijer and D&W is the most sought out location for grocery purchases.

Over the last decades a pattern of downtown working and suburban living emerged, but since the Butterworth/Blodgett merger and the development of the Medical Mile on Michigan, demand for downtown real estate has increased significantly, spurred on by increasing transportation costs as well. Suddenly the place to be is not longer in the suburbs, but in the city, and developers have been eager to build more housing that will appeal to people with professional jobs and incomes. Old factories and commercial buildings have been transformed into condos and apartments, and the city recently approved plans for a mixed-space development in the Belknap neighborhood, just north of the Medical Mile.

These changes have been controversial, with some calling them gentrification and others accusing the city of allowing the more well off citizens to push established residents out of key areas of the city. Other celebrate what they consider the significant improvements in dining choices, retail shopping, entertainment options, and public living.

What is not debated by either group is that downtown city living, despite its benefits, is more challenging because of the lack of grocery shopping options. Food is available in the city in small boutique groceries and at farmer's markets, and there are food delivery options through Doorganics and the West Michigan Coop, but there is no large scale, one-stop-shopping option for buying food and other sundries downtown.

So how viable would a large grocery store be downtown? Despite the Downtown Development Authority identifying the lack of grocery options downtown as a significant weakness of the city in 2011, there seems to be significant hesitation from chains like Meijer or Trader Joe's to locate anywhere near downtown. Part of this must be logistical. Parking downtown is a problem, and although the Silver Line made its inaugural run this week offering residents more transportation flexibility, large chain stores are designed to sell groceries in bulk - a practice that doesn't mesh as well with public transportation use.

Additionally, for the most desirable affluent market, there already are grocery options like the Downtown Market. It's the working class and downsized middle class who would need a low cost option like a coop or an ALDI downtown to consider urban living even possible. Most of them rely on their cars too much to give them up, even if car maintenance is more expensive long term. This demographic isn't concerned about the health benefits of kombucha or gluten-free eating. They need grocery stores who will accept the bridge card and/or offer cheap staples and produce, locally grown or not.

The question, then, is: does the city intend to encourage economic diversity with its downtown planning or not? And is there enough demand to support a larger grocery store at present? Rich people can always pay to have groceries delivered, no matter where they come from. The economically disadvantaged need an option geographically nearby.

Only time will tell.

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