City leaders in Raleigh have a vision for the future. It looks something like 1940.
And that’s a good thing.
The idea is to break open mid-20th century zoning codes that put up walls between where people live, work and shop. That approach led to sprawl and to isolated neighborhoods. One-dimensional zoning emptied downtowns after 5 p.m. and created a dependency on automobiles to get around.
But some city leaders and their planners are increasingly envisioning a city where varying housing types are adjacent, with some offering multiple units that can accommodate generations of families. They see more people riding buses, trains and light rail. They want neighborhoods where people can walk and ride bikes to where they want to go.
Into this vision enters an almost forgotten neighborhood feature – the corner store. It’s a place where kids can walk to buy candy, a parent can pick up milk or detergent and neighbors can run into each other.
The Raleigh City Council has taken the first steps to cracking the zoning barriers that led to the demise of the corner store, though the final approval may not come until the spring of 2022.
Council member Jonathan Melton, who is leading the effort to bring the small stores back to residential areas, said the idea is a new wrinkle in the movement toward more varied neighborhoods. “I don’t think any major city has tackled it yet,” he said. “This is a place where Raleigh could be a national leader.”
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an associate professor at N.C. State University who studies food and nutrition policy, said bringing back corner stores is about more than convenience and about more than cities. Small grocery stores stocked with fresh produce could help break up food deserts.
“Corner stores in North Carolina are vital to our local economies, especially in rural communities where they are usually the nearest retail food outlet for people living there,” she said. “Selling and promoting healthier food and beverages at these stores is an opportunity to invest in both health and the economy.”
Melton said they early response to the proposed zoning change has been encouraging. “I’ve only received positive feedback,” he said. But he knows objections will grow as people worry that a store might open on a corner of their leafy neighborhood.
Melton said the key to making the change is transparency. “It’s not that scary if everyone has a chance to weigh in and understand what we’re doing,” he said.
The change would be limited to areas zoned R-4 and up – that’s four residential units per acre or more. And the corner store wouldn’t be a typical convenience store with gas pumps, or a place where people would tend to loiter.
The city could offer tax credits to those who want to open – or in some old neighborhoods, reopen – a corner stare, Melton said. Requirements for the credit would allow the city more control over the type of store that opens.
Melton sees the corner store as “a standalone building nestled into the neighborhood.” As he put it, “Instead of driving to the big grocery store, you say, ‘Let me walk down the street.’ ”
Jessica Peacock wants to make that vision real. Peacock, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher in Raleigh, hopes to open a corner store where her great-grandparents once operated one out of their home near downtown Raleigh. The store closed when zoning laws changed.
Peacock, along with her father and uncle, hopes to clear the corner lot for a new store that will bring fresh food, sandwiches and everyday supplies into a neighborhood where the nearest grocery store is several miles away.
The store would offer groceries, food to go and maybe even cooking classes. Peacock said people in the neighborhood want both the convenience and the connection of food provided by a neighborhood store. She said, they want not just produce, but fresh produce and to-go meals “made with love.”
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com