Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's, old supermarkets and economic black holes

Deserted supermarkets are annoying neighbours, confounding would-be retailers and posing new questions for city council, writes John Gushue.

Shut-down stores seem like blights in otherwise lively marketplace

I almost expect to see tumbleweeds roll past my feet when I walk along a stretch of Rowan Street in Churchill Square these days. That would be the site of the SaveEasy grocery store, which shut down this winter, the last of a series of grocery stores to have been on the location for more than 50 years.

It was a Dominion store for much of its life, and it's not even the only dormant Dominion store in the city. A few kilometres away, a much larger space stands deserted at the corner of Newfoundland Drive and Torbay Road.

Further away, in the opposite direction, is the old Dominion site on Ropewalk Lane, just one of a series of retail spaces that have been vacant so long that you'd think you were in economically devastated Detroit, and not what is otherwise a city with a bubbling, thriving economy.

Like Newfoundland Drive, this store closed when Dominion opened a much larger store somewhere else. That fit into the company's business plan; what seems unclear is why these large spaces have become black holes in local commerce.

"Something about it sounds not right," says Kathie Hicks, the St. John's businesswoman whose concerns include Spirit of Newfoundland, the popular dinner theatre company.

Hicks has made two inquiries this year about separate properties still owned by Loblaw. One was the gargantuan space on Newfoundland Drive, the other more recently concerning a pitch she wanted to make for the Churchill Square space. Neither query went far.

When she contacted the leasing agent for the Square space, "They just said, 'We're not leasing the space,'" Hicks told my colleague Krissy Holmes earlier this month.

'Something about it sounds not right.'—Kathie Hicks

Hicks stayed on the line, and when asked what she had in mind, she revealed she was looking at a retail idea that would include health products and supplements.

"As soon as I said 'some fresh,' she said, 'Oh, not, we're not doing any grocery-store-related items at all.' So that was that," Hicks said.

Restrictions on use of property

She didn't get far on the Newfoundland Drive property, either, probably because she was interested only in a fraction of the overall space.

Memorial Stadium, which closed in 2001, was eventually turned into a Dominion supermarket. (CBC )

"That's a really big location," she said. "I just didn't even get the question out, 'What about if I didn't want all of it?' Immediately I was shut down ... They were not going to piecemeal it."

Some years ago, St. John's was wrapped up in one debate after another about the construction of supermarkets. The old model of supermarkets — one that replaced the grocers that earlier generations knew with centralized, full-service stores — suddenly seemed quaint; Loblaw and its archrival Sobeys moved toward even larger sites, in keeping with the big-box trend in retail.

There are still some sore feelings in the city about the redevelopment of Memorial Stadium, which some residents vigorously opposed. (To judge by the increased traffic since it opened, a lot of consumers are evidently over their opposition, if those shoppers had any at all.)

But Hicks wonders why Loblaw is hanging on to its vacant properties, seemingly unwilling to let new opportunities arise at spaces they no longer want, "particularly for what this city did, to let them use the property down at Quidi Vidi."

Unhappy neighbours

If you ever needed proof of what a signature retailer means to a neighbourhood, consider what happened when that SaveEasy closed in Churchill Square. I know about this from my own experience; my parents live in the neighbourhood, as they did when I grew up there years ago.

Supermarkets have evolved quite a bit over the years. The size of old stores now seems a little quaint. (CBC)

For my mom, and countless other seniors, the store was a lifeline. Ditto for the students from nearby Memorial University, who relied on the store’s ready access (if not necessarily the cheapest prices; I recall a Muse consumer piece which showed that SaveEasy, despite the implications of its name, charged more for common items than its Dominion cousins).

Yes, there is a Sobeys on Elizabeth Avenue, less than three kilometres away. But for on-campus students, that's three kilometres in the wrong direction, and organizers of a petition that went to city council underscored that many residents in and around the Square are seniors who do not drive.

That petition, you may remember, was aimed as much as Loblaw management as at the city. Residents simply felt cut off when they lost a key service in their midst.

A broader issue has been put before council than the prayer of that one petition.

What, after all, is to become of a commercial space after a company leaves it ... and doesn't want anyone else to have it either? That may be exaggerating Loblaw's intentions, but the company clearly won't let the spaces go simply because someone wants them.

Hicks puts it this way: "These are very large, substantial buildings sitting there empty for years and years. How can you let them sit there?"

Should not, then, the city have a policy that governs vacant space? It does, after all, impose restrictions on how commercial space can be used when shoppers are actually going there; why not consider the ground rules for what happens when the owner takes the shingle down?

As an election looms ...

Private companies will determine what operates on commercial space, but there is a place for meaningful public debate and guidance. Is there consideration for neighbours, and what an abandoned retail does to a neighbourhood's psyche?

Maybe we need to rethink of things just in the same way that caused Churchill Square to exist in the first place. After the Second World War, plans were drafted for three small-scale squares along what is now Elizabeth Avenue; only one was fully built, but its vision of mixed retail, housing and open space stands as a decent model for urban development, accommodating pedestrians, livyers and commuters alike.

In the last generation, sprawl on the Northeast Avalon has become far more pronounced. (Need proof? Think about where most grocery stores have gone, not to mention subdivisions, big-box retailers and so on.)

With next year's municipal election now on the horizon, maybe we'll see a debate that will see new approaches to development, including mixed-use neighbourhoods where residents could expect to get at least some shopping done on foot. (A colleague and I were discussing this. If you're not sure about your own neighbourhood, ask yourself this question: do you need car keys when you run out of milk?)

As for those black holes of St. John's commerce ... well, I'm as curious as anyone to see what will fill them.