Strong Towns Challenge: Walk to the Grocery Store

I live in the Annapolis Maryland the historic capital of the state, one of two incorporated areas in Anne Arundel County. The historic city proper is about 40,000 people, a very small town compared to the neighboring Baltimore and Washington DC, which is essentially infilling into a single mega metropolis. Through a series of good – lucky, if I am honest with myself – decisions we bought a house in the West Annapolis neighborhood. For those not familiar with the local area, and maybe also for those who are, but need a perspective check, the proper way to think about West Annapolis is a neighborhood of the city or something like a “first ring” suburb in a larger area. For the planner types, it is a combination of T3 (sub-urban where most of the residences are) and T4 (general urban where our local business district is).

The neighborhood dates back to the late 1800s when it was planned for development from farmland. An early map shows the traditional development pattern which is bordered by creeks/rivers on three sides.

e0091-wardouroldmap-529x389It never ended up quite that dense and interestingly the part to the right of the map ended up being redesigned by Frederick Law Olmsted to be more “Central Park-like”due to the topography and the desire for larger lots on the water. In addition, the B&A Railroad used to go directly through (shown on the bottom part of the map) with a stop in West Annapolis on it’s way into Annapolis. Interesting local history, but I digress.

I feel very fortunate to have ended up here because it is an extremely walkable compared to other parts of the County. While we ended up here 20 years ago based on making easy commutes to Baltimore and Washington for me and my wife, there is just something inherently attractive about this kind of neighborhood. At the time, it was really just a “feel thing” until my interest in urbanism began to develop a number of years ago. I realized I have always lived in places like this: New Bedford MA, Cleveland Heights OH, Lakewood OH, that is, all within walking or biking distance to various amenities I care about. I don’t think it was by accident, these are places that people really like. Now with the vocabulary of urbanism, I can more explicitly explain why I like them.

Which brings me to the Strong Towns Challenge: Walk to the Grocery Store. Honestly, it’s a bit of a no brainer as we have a full service grocery store less than 1/2 mile away that is an interesting and pleasant walk or bike.  You can see from the map that the neighborhood has a small street grid not unlike that in the 1890 map above and the walk is from the blue dot to the grocery store icon at the bottom. Don’t let the local Walkscore of 57 throw you off, it’s really misleading.

65680-west_annapolis_walkscoreWhile I typically ride my bike there because it’s faster and I just like to ride bikes, it is a very pleasant walk. It starts with a walk up my street, which has parked cars both sides and no sidewalks, even though there are lots of people walking dogs, kids etc. We don’t need them as the driving cues say “whoaaa, 25 is way too fast”. The houses are interesting and the Elementary School is at the head of the street.

f665c-img_3487This is a very sub-urban kind of thing, but within a block or two, we arrive at the school (on the right) and the business district at the light). The city has added bike lanes (even though they don’t connect to anything useful from a transportation perspective – grrr), which help slow people down. A recent to be published city sector study (for planners if you are really interested) has recommended bumpouts at intersections to help and provide better crossings for the school.

ddd49-img_3488At the light you take a right into the business district, about 2×3 square blocks. It contains a mix of specialty shops a coffee shop and a few restaurants and a lot of suburban type doctor’s offices (not shown). I disagree a bit with many people in the neighborhood in that I believe the business district would be better served by a bit more density, but that is not what most people want. That is a discussion for another time…

4f73e-img_3489At the next block you take a right, then a left and you are nearly at the shopping plaza which contains an excellent – recently remodeled inside  – full service grocery store, a drugstore, a bagel shop, a quick service Italian/pizza restaurant, a Chinese restaurant and a bank and 7-Eleven across the street. Pretty much a good smattering of amenities.  For the most part there are good sidewalks, although there are a few missing teeth, but the cars move slowly here and it is not catastrophic. Easy to walk, easy to bike, even for children. There is some traditional mixed use, but it is older and none built in recent years. I hope this will change, but the area is not specifically zoned “mixed use”, which might prevent such development, I don’t really know the intricacies of the laws, but that in and of itself might be part of the problem. Developers really don’t want to do something that is “tricky”.  The Chinese restaurant is the classic example; the owners still live in the attached house.

57323-img_3492The shopping plaza is not particularly attractive and has all the wrong attributes (parking in the front, single story, no mixed use), but it is functional and most importantly, is human scaled. The amount of parking is just about right, on any given day it is close to being full.

3b8d8-img_3490This area directly abuts the US Naval Academy and a few years ago the owner of the property flirted with kicking out the tenants and selling/redeveloping the property into a hotel that would cater primarily to visitors of the USNA. The locals (including me) expressed interest – that’s a bit of an understatement, we marshaled the troops with pitchforks – in keeping the mix of businesses the same because it is exactly those that makes this area walkable from a “getting around in your daily life” perspective that we all know is so critical to creating places people love. Thankfully, the owner decided to continue working with the existing businesses and as a result there has been new investment in the buildings with significant inside renovations of the grocery store and the bagel, shop, a good sign of commitment on all sides.

So I walked to the store to pick up some lunch today. A nice one mile walk on a glorious fall day. I am grateful that my experience is neither difficult nor uncommon. Annapolis and specifically West Annapolis is not perfect for sure and as much as I might criticize the City, it is because I love it and want to see it prosper as a Strong Town. It is way better off in this regard that many other places in the area. We really have a huge number of Strong Towns attributes and have a great comprehensive plan as a guide, we just need to make sure the spirit of the plan is maintained as we go. I would not want to live anywhere else.

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