By Chris Ortloff:
Let it be said: I love shopping at Wegmans. Ever since my days as an undergraduate, trekking across the city of Ithaca to score a sub that put all others to shame, they’ve had me hooked. It’s been many years since those first bites, and walking through its doors still fills me with glee as I anticipate the gastronomical wonderland ahead of me. What’s more, this seems to be a common sensation among people who’ve shopped there. A chance encounter with other western New Yorkers at a sandwich shop in Washington DC a few years ago quickly became a gush-fest, all of us exchanging our fondest, most indulgent, or rarest-find (some mildly life-changing) Wegmans experiences. We were instant friends, thanks to what the uninitiated might see as a strange shared obsession with a simple and mundane grocery store. But for those of us who know, it is much more than that.
Here’s the big however. At some point in most relationships, one of you eventually asks, “Do you love me as much I love you?” Or as Eddie Murphy asked, back in his leather onesie Delirious days, “What have you done for me lately??” Lately, it has seemed a real one-way street, and it breaks my heart.
But before we roll out the tears, let’s set the stage a bit. By this writer’s own count, Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. has eight locations in the towns surrounding the city of Buffalo, but only one within the city limits: on Amherst Street in North Buffalo. They are all, as most large grocery stores are, designed for a suburban, car-dependent public that drives to the store, loads up the trunk, and drives home. This means parking, and lots of it, with the store set behind it, far from the street. It also means that very few of their customers are going to be walking there and home. This 20th century model works fine on Maple Road, Milestrip, and Dick Road, but is wholly anathema to an urban site, like on Amherst Street, where a larger percentage of those shopping are on foot. This location is not in the suburbs, but it’s built like it is. (Fun exercise: GoogleMaps the stores and look at their neighbors.)
Still, as one of their neighbors, the nicest feature of this Wegmans location is the green space they’ve cultivated, the only of its kind on the street, which acts as a buffer between the sidewalk and the parking, and where I can lie in the summer or let my dog roam (yes, I pick up). However, as if they’re not doing enough business and contributing to an already problematic traffic flow, Wegmans has seen fit to plunk down on that green space a 15,000 sf, near-thirty-foot high, single floor liquor store, largely windowless and with its only entrance facing not toward the street, as any competent urban designer would insist, but toward the additional 20 parking spaces worth of asphalt that they’re installing. I say “plunk” because it really feels and looks like it’s been picked out of their corporate toy box and glued down on any ol’ site. Sparing you readers excessive but much-justified design critique, I’ll say just that the prominent dumpster enclosure at the corner stoplight intersection is only the most egregious of their slights toward the community.
The design did change some in response to early community input, but it merely changed to look like it fits in, replacing dryvit with wood siding and inserting windows that don’t transmit light, without functionally fitting the building in with its surroundings. I lament what this proposal could have been had the company’s designers spent the time to think about what it means to build a store on the sidewalk along Black Rock’s main drag. Though, while we may not be able expect that kind of consideration from a company who almost exclusively builds big boxes, we should be able to demand it. The city’s planning board approved the design late last year with no conditions or objections, even with repeated (though unnecessarily hard-earned) appeals by Grant-Amherst Business Association president, Mark Kubiniec, and others to affect changes to the design. Kubiniec remembers, “There was never any engagement on some of the bigger design issues, nor the urban design issues.”
Those who have been following the city’s cultural development the last few years will be familiar with the burgeoning vibrancy of North Buffalo’s Grant-Amherst scene, with recent openings of Black Rock Kitchen and Bar, Delish!, and 464 Gallery. These are in addition to neighborhood stalwarts that include Rohall’s Corner, Nick’s Place, and Spar’s butchers. The area isn’t gentrified, but many know that it is on the verge of a cultural emergence. As such, it is a crucial time for the relatively fragile Grant-Amherst strip and the businesses there trying to sculpt an attractive image for the area.
Take a step back. In your mind, drive up Elmwood Avenue. Pass Campus Wheelworks, SPoT Coffee, Globe Market, Village Laundry. These are thriving urban shops, active and successful businesses that are approachable and right at the sidewalk, drawing people to their doors and also to the area. Just ahead is the Lexington Co-op. This grocery store is well integrated into a model walkable urban community; the street-front is active with the store’s entrance, its large clear windows, produce stands on the sidewalk, and an eating area with tables and chairs. This all contributes to a walkable community, something many would agree is overdue as a priority in America’s urban development.
Now imagine one of these stores with its main entrance in the back, maybe a few small high-sill windows on the sidewalk (some don’t even let you see in), cement board and brick walls, and a steady stream of cars exiting its lot, whose drivers are looking more for an opening in the traffic into which to push rather than looking for you as you try to cross the street. Would you spend much time in or around that store? Would you want that store as a neighbor to your business?
This is what the Grant-Amherst community has to look forward to: an out-of-place detriment to a vibrant street, put up by a company that is proud to announce every year that it is one of Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For”, but one with apparent cavalier attitudes toward the community that hosts it. It should be clear where they are putting their energies – toward themselves.
So, do you love me, Wegmans? It would seem not as much as I once loved you. You take my money, pour cars down my street, and trivialize my community leaders. You treat me like a suburbanite, even though I live, work, and walk in this city. I don’t think you know me. Did you ever? And what have you done for me lately? Well, you could start by shoveling your sidewalk. That would be a step in the right direction, and maybe even start to rekindle that old flame.