Planned development projects on South Park Street could temporarily leave the neighborhood without a grocery store.
While residents have long expressed their concerns about being without a grocery store, Madison officials say they can help residents access other grocers.
The Pick ‘n Save at 1312 S. Park St. is the only major full-service grocery store in the area. SSM Health plans to purchase the property and demolish the store later this year in order to build a clinic.
Right next door to Pick ‘n Save is the city-owned 3.5-acre property at 1402 S. Park St., formerly the Truman Olson United States Army Reserve Center. The city released a request for proposals in 2017 to develop the property, calling for a grocery store on the site.
But the city has not yet selected a developer and may re-issue the RFP altogether, possibly further delaying development on the site.
On Wednesday, the city’s Truman Olson Selection Committee met to discuss a proposal for the site by Welton Enterprises. Plans call for a 30,000 square-foot grocery store and a four-story, 52-unit housing complex. There would be 90 surface parking stalls for the grocery store and 70 stalls for apartment residents, with some spaces underground. Welton vice president Paul Molinaro said the firm has a potential grocery partner for the site "if we can get to a point that works both functionally and financially for all parities involved," though he said he could not yet name the grocer.
The committee pointed out two major concerns with the proposal, which were echoed in a city staff report:
- The grocery store would be a one-story building, while design requirements calls for a two-story minimum.
- The proposal asks for a total of $3.1 million and $3.4 million in various city funds and according to the report, “staff does not believe this projects warrants this level of assistance."
The committee decided to give city staff and the Welton team another month to address concerns and try to come to an agreement on the plans, said Matthew Mikolajewski, director of the city’s Economic Development Division.
Mikolajewski said that whether the city ultimately decides to select the Welton proposal or re-issue the RFP, there will likely be a period of time when the neighborhood is without a grocery store.
It’s impossible to say when and for how long the grocery gap would be, Mikolajewski said, because it depends both on when SSM decides to demolish the Pick ‘n Save and how long it takes to approve a proposal for the Truman Olson site.
SSM has previously indicated to the city that it would demolish the store in November or December of this year. SSM Health said Friday in an email that the company did “not have any significant changes to the overall facility development strategy.”
As for the Truman Olson site, an RFP process generally takes about six months, but that doesn’t mean re-issuing the RFP would automatically extend the development process by a certain amount of time, Mikolajewski said. There are other factors contributing to the timeline, as even after a proposal is selected, the developer must secure land use approvals, financing and finalize a partnership with a grocer, he said.
However, Ald. Allen Arntsen, District 13, said the grocery store gap would be a “lot shorter if we can find a way to move forward with Welton.”
The prospect of a gap is worrisome to area residents. Arntsen said he’s heard “a lot of neighborhood concern.”
“It’s really the only full-service grocery store in a pretty big area and you can have quite a food desert if it’s closed,” he said, adding he thinks the loss of the store will be even harder on neighborhoods south of his district.
The Bay Creek Neighborhood Association has long advocated for Pick ‘n Save to stay open during the Truman Olson development. Providing healthy food is a matter of equity, a letter from the BCNA to the city said, especially considering the area has been designated a Food Access Improvement focus area.
A grassroots group, Friends of Park Street, is hosting a meeting on Wednesday, March 13, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., though the location of the meeting has not yet been announced. Neighbors and several nearby neighborhood associations are invited and the goal is to “to provide a platform for the voices of south Madison to express their needs,” said Carrie Rothburd, an active Bay Creek neighbor and a member of Friends of Park Street.
“South Madison needs to say again and again and again that it is not acceptable for us to lose our supermarket,” Rothburd said. “That’s all we can really do.”
Haywood Simmons, who lives in the South Park Street area and founded the holistic wellness clinic Phitness Plus, said he is “more than concerned” about the potential loss of a store in the area, but that the food needs of the south side go beyond just getting another store. The area needs better access to high-quality, healthy food, he said.
In an email, SSM Health acknowledged the possibility of a gap and neighborhood concerns, saying “the health and well-being of the community is always top of mind for SSM Health.”
“We are committed to working with the City of Madison, neighborhood and eventual developer of the Truman Olson site to find real, meaningful solutions that will support neighborhood residents potentially at-risk for food insecurity during that time,” said Kim Sveum, regional manager of communications at SSM Health.
The city already has some solutions in mind. George Reistad, the city’s food policy director, emphasized that the city is aware of the gap and is taking it seriously.
“At the city’s end, we’re not just kind of sitting back on our heels and waiting for something to happen,” Reistad said. “This is a significant issue and we want to come up with an solution that works for everybody.”
There are two ways to fix a food gap, Reistad said: bring the food to the people or the people to the food. For a temporary gap, it makes the most sense to bring the people to the food, as setting up a food retailer is a complicated endeavor.
After a full-service grocery store and then a Walgreens closed in the Allied Drive neighborhood, residents were left without grocery options, Mikolajewski said. The city set aside funds and partnered with local cab companies to pay for individuals to use taxis to get to other grocery stores.
City staff have already had initial conversations about putting together a similar program for the neighbors around the Pick ‘n Save, Mikolajewski said. Reistad said the city’s Healthy Retail Access Program is a “pot of money ready to be mobilized when we need to have a solution.”
Rothburd said that such a program would be “certainly worth exploring,” but she would want to make sure such a program would be well publicized and well funded. Simmons thinks the idea of taxis could be helpful, but also wants to encourage farmer’s markets and CSAs in the area to provide healthy food.
The plans for the Truman Olson site have already gone through several iterations. Originally, the city issued a request for proposals to develop the vacant property, listing goals like connecting Cedar Street to Appleton Road, increasing the tax base, developing workforce housing and keeping a grocery store in the area.
In April 2018, Welton Enterprises and a Hovde Properties/SSM Health team responded to the RFP. But in May, the two teams asked for a hold on proceedings after deciding to combine their proposals for the site. SSM Health then dropped out of the bid, planning instead to purchase the Pick ‘n Save site from Welton and build a 176,000 square-foot clinic.