Charlotte’s top grocers challenged by new arrivals
With hundreds of apartments underway, property values rising and a light rail extension that recently started, the area in and around NoDa is one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Charlotte.
But amid the area's boom, curious neighbors keep asking: Why doesn't NoDa have more full-service grocery stores?
On The Plaza, NoDa does have Food Lion, which opened in 1990, as well as a discount grocer called Giant Penny. But as grocery wars rage on in other fast-growing and high-income parts of the city, NoDa remains with few options.
The answer to the neighborhood's frustration is a bit complicated.
Residents of the area have been pushing for another full-service grocery store in the area for at least a decade, according to Hollis Nixon, president of the NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association.
Every time it comes up, they have been told by developers: "NoDa doesn’t have the numbers to support a grocery store," Nixon said.
Grocery stores operate on thin profit margins, and when looking to open new stores, the companies use models that include details about an area's demographics, income levels and infrastructure.
"One of the biggest obstacles for NoDa is that its rapidly changing demographics are hard to capture," said Kyle Merville, a real estate developer from Charlotte now based in Miami.
It's a good sign that dirt is moving and that people are moving into NoDa, but the data that grocery operators study may lag.
Grocery companies pay particularly close attention to a neighborhood's income data, experts say.
In Cotswold, Publix is building a store on Randolph Road that is almost literally within a stone's throw from Harris Teeter. The median income there was $74,921 in 2016, the most recent year for which census data is available.
In South End, where Harris Teeter opened a store last summer less than a mile from the Publix on South Boulevard, the median income was $82,609.
In the 28205 ZIP code — which includes parts of NoDa, Plaza Midwood, Villa Heights, Belmont and other communities — the median income was $40,996, according to the census. In the 28206 ZIP code, which includes NoDa on the opposite side of the light rail and extends north to Interstate 85, the median income was $28,034.
The same question about lack of grocery stores in NoDa could be asked of other areas throughout the city that are considered food insecure, where there are few or no walkable grocery stores. In such areas, a job loss or a car breakdown could disrupt a household’s access to fresh food.
One example is the West Boulevard corridor between Billy Graham Parkway and Interstate 485. The neighborhood's closest grocery option is the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Wilkinson Boulevard.
In contrast, it's the higher-income areas that have become grocery store oases. According to an Observer analysis, seven full-service grocery stores that opened in Mecklenburg County between 2015 and 2017 are in thriving, predominantly white neighborhoods where the median household income is nearly 50 percent higher than the county’s median of $56,800.
'A complex process'
Maria Brous, a spokeswoman for Florida-based Publix, said in an email that store site selection is "a complex process that takes into account several factors, many of which are strategic and proprietary in nature." She declined to share details on what else the grocer studies in scouting new locations.
“With (the) Blue Line, we’ll see income growth up there (in NoDa), and it’ll be a demographic that is attractive to (grocery companies)," said Collin Brown, an attorney at K&L Gates who represents developers behind several mixed-use projects around Charlotte.
He cited the rapid redevelopment of South End spurred by the opening of the light rail in 2007.
A neighborhood also needs to have enough streets that are wide enough (more than two lanes) to support the traffic generated by a full-service grocery store. In NoDa, only a few streets — including Matheson, The Plaza and North Tryon — fit the bill.
"(The neighborhood needs) a minimum number of cars they have going by every day," Merville added.
Another big obstacle for grocery store development is the lengthy zoning process, which is why if a developer sets aside sufficient space in a project, it may accelerate grocery expansion.
Such a mixed-use development is going up in places like 36th Street adjacent to the light rail, where Asana Partners recently began construction of a retail building that will include a Wooden Robot brewery. Asana owns about 45,000 square feet of retail space on the site and has another building under contract next door, managing partner Sam Judd said. The property could include some kind of market, Judd said. But it probably wouldn't be a traditional supermarket like Harris Teeter.
And not all grocery stores have to be the 50,000-square-foot supermarkets that are popping up in less dense parts of the Charlotte metro area.
Harris Teeter has an uptown location that's about 18,000 square feet. Trader Joe's stores are typically around 15,000 square feet. Sprouts, which recently opened its first Charlotte store in Ballantyne, operates stores that all have the same layout and size of 30,000 square feet.
Brown, the attorney, says grocery expansion into NoDa might not be too far away given the area's fast growth.
"When the market matures," he said, "the cities' and neighborhoods' expectation will be some kind of urban grocery store."