Small Footprints, Big Impact: How to Make a Million Dollars Stretch across Center City

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The Southtown Community Garden at 1002 S. Presa St. was officially launched in 2007.

The Southtown Community Garden at 1002 S. Presa St. was officially launched in 2007. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Josh LevineThe unprecedented opportunity the city created with the $1 million incentive for a downtown grocery store piqued my interest from the first I heard of it.  It motivated me to be part of the dialogue on overlapping subjects that I am passionate about: urban development, culture, and health and wellness.  From my experience as a small business owner who has developed a variety of concepts in urban settings, I felt I had a cultivated perspective on how the city should grow, what is hindering growth and most importantly, the true cost and detrimental effects of cheap, processed food.

When it comes to urban development, it is important to be creative – even eclectic – for effective, cohesive growth.  Where others see nothing or even great risk, there could be diamonds in the rough waiting to be polished.

This has been my attitude when creating neighborhood gyms in downtown Alamo Heights and in King William, and with the design of the 1221 Broadway fitness centers and the managing of the Cevallos Lofts fitness centers.  Every nook and cranny is an opportunity to create culture, and from my company’s point of view that provides options for fitness in fun, interesting locales.

Uncommon Fare, 301 E. Cevallos St. unit 169, offers high-end but basic grocery needs to Cevallos loft tenants and surrounding community. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Uncommon Fare, 301 E. Cevallos St. unit 169, offers high-end but basic grocery needs to Cevallos loft tenants and surrounding community. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

With Uncommon Fare and MBS Spa, we identified what Cevallos Lofts and the community-at-large were lacking in goods and services and integrated with the lofts themselves by renovating a two-story apartment into two small businesses accessible to the tenants and the neighborhood.

There is a better, more organic way to address this need for a grocery store that fits with the character of downtown.  I believe this because I’ve already done it with Uncommon Fare.  The insistence on a 15-20,000 square-foot store is a heavy-handed and artificial way of creating growth, and will actually stifle the type of culture that will make San Antonio a special place to live.

Based on the study done by HR&A for the city [PDF], in order for a large store to succeed  it will be inherent that they control an inordinate amount of the market just to survive.  It will also be necessary to provide an additional $2.5 to $3 million subsidy over the next ten years for a store of this size to make it. (See: “Necessary Subsidy for Development” section within the HR&A study.)

The Delivery Market, at 310 E. Houston St., delivers groceries and lunches within a two and a half mile radius of its downtown location (King William, to Santa Rosa St., to Broadway and just past Highway 37). Most of the market's clientele are people that work downtown or visitors staying at neighboring hotels, said Tim Gonzales, assistant manager. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Delivery Market, at 310 E. Houston St., delivers groceries and lunches within a two and a half mile radius of its downtown location. Most of the market’s clientele are people that work downtown or visitors staying at neighboring hotels, said Tim Gonzales, assistant manager. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

What is needed – and what will be the optimal catalyst – is to instead spread the investment across every sector of what is defined as the “urban core.”

I propose a constellation of unique locations: multiple, smaller grocery stores that fit into the fabric of the diverse urban landscape.  By integrating with existing investment, the mixed use developments that are already developed or in development, urban density will be attained while not forcing out other businesses or discouraging others to create something new.

The city has already implemented finish-out allowances for potential businesses in these new developments. These existing incentives will supplement the grocery store incentive instead of the necessity to create an additional subsidy.  The HR&A study acknowledges that this multi-tenant option was beyond the scope of their analysis and was not included in the report.

In order to truly transform the city, not only do we need to fill these new developments with a bastion of new urbanites, we must also provide accessible, affordable, and healthy food options to the long-time residents directly in their neighborhoods.  The strategy for this to occur – what I believe is the biggest hindrance to growth so far – is to purchase dilapidated and undeveloped properties and repurpose them into multi-functional uses such as industrial kitchens and distribution centers.  These will support the other satellite locations while providing a storefront that offers less expensive but still healthy options to the less affluent areas of downtown.

The Southtown Community Garden at 1002 S. Presa St. was officially launched in 2007.

The Southtown Community Garden at 1002 S. Presa St. is the continuation of an effort started in 2007, officially relaunched last year. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Since these hubs will provide support to the other locations, the satellites can reduce square footage and maximize space while allowing for locations serving a low-income population to develop community gardens, nutritional seminars and food demonstrations without the economic pressures of the market value costs associated with mixed-use developments.

With the development of Uncommon Fare at Cevallos Lofts, the experiment of a small, urban grocery store is working.  We are facing the challenges of a demographically and economically diverse downtown population with open arms.

Adjustments and adaptations can be implemented quickly and efficiently on this scale while sustaining the high level of quality that we set out to provide.  The possibility of multiple locations will provide the opportunity to make even more refinements, allowing the demands of a specific demographic to be met while providing other options in close proximity to one another.  This small-footprint strategy will have the biggest impact on the whole of city center, and the best way to allocate the incentives created by the city.


Josh Levine owns MBS which stands for Mind Body Soul, a lifestyle company that consists of a variety of small businesses – MBS Fitness, MBS Pilates, MBS Spa, Crossfit Mind Body Soul, and Uncommon Fare Goods and Groceries.   A certified personal trainer and yoga instructor for over ten years, he continues to help people get fit on a daily basis.  He can be reached at


Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

Where I Live: Towers at the Majestic

State of the Center City: More Housing, Fewer Vacant Buildings

No to Downtown Subsidies: The View from District 9 and Councilwoman Chan

The Conversation Continues: A Young Family That Left Downtown Decides To Leave the Suburbs And Return to the Center City


20 thoughts on “Small Footprints, Big Impact: How to Make a Million Dollars Stretch across Center City

  1. This hits close to home. An HEB Plus in Southtown would be horrific. I completely agree that the best solution is to avoid the mega store in favor of smaller stores that are within walking distance. People won’t mind shopping more often and the urban renaissance that is currently happening won’t be stifled.

  2. The smaller store model makes sense to me. I don’t live downtown, but I can attest that not one grocery store–no matter the square footage–is the “be all” place to shop. I go to no less than six different stores periodically to get the food and household products I like. A small, but efficient, store could stock the basics with a few unique things thrown in for fun, and serve their area well.

  3. The South town garden was created last year. A previous garden further South on South Presa was created in 2007, though some members carried over.

  4. Amen. The urban residential areas that I find most inviting have numerous, diverse neighborhood food, grocery and produce options. Think upper west side NYC, most European cities and towns, and, well, just about everywhere except US cities and towns that evolved under the current retailing paradigm. Also, thanks for having read the report and passed along the “additional subsidies” likely necessary in the future. It always seemed a bit absurd that “only” $1 million would be sufficient to get a large retailer to make the sizeable, long term investment that a big box grocery store represents. Those decisions are based on financial viability and if it is not viable without $1 million, then it isn’t long term viable with…or, likely, even $10 million. That means a subsidy is not ultimately truly necessary if you just want more of the current, prevailing model.

  5. This is exactly what it should be like! The community feel will be jeapordized by the city forcing upon us what they think we want.

  6. Exactly! Create a central distribution platform and a network for grocery items to maintain the shelves of independent grocers. Who’s going to do it?

  7. I agree that the downtown area would benefit from a smaller network of grocery stores. I enjoy shopping at Uncommon Fare and I love knowing that my dollars are spent on local entrepreneurs and local farmers. I think it would further add to the uniqueness of our downtown. Great ideas for sure.

  8. Here’s another concept: bring fresh food to the people with produce trucks and food carts. This has been tried successfully in Baltimore and New York City. Many people living in food deserts have difficulty going to stores, wherever they might be. San Antonio’s problems are complex and need complex solutions.

  9. Lays out a very good case. Was this idea given any consideration ? Could be that this is not economically feasible. Was there any community input in the process/decision? If there wasn’t , that is sad.

  10. Great article! I agree with Jim_S, after living in NYC and in cities in Germany, this is basically the same model they use. Open a store near the Pearl! PLEASE!!

  11. Thank you for saying what needs to be said about the scale issue. I appreciate this very telling description of the pervasive business model: “for a large store to succeed it will be inherent that they they must control an inordinate amount of the market just to survive.”

    Having many small markets created by local and neighborhood entrepreneurs is a model for economic development that has been overlooked here. The multiplier effect of keeping neighborhood dollars circulating within the neighborhood is powerful for lifting communities out of poverty. It isn’t only downtown that needs this. All those food deserts that the prevailing model has left high and dry are where the real need is. Giving neighborhood entrepreneurs access to the needed capital will do far more than recruiting chain groceries to come in.

  12. This idea is novel. It has been done before with success and also with failure. A lot of it comes down to market supply and demand, is there really a demand for such a small store and are people willing to pay the prices, find parking, etc? I remember living downtown in Austin and a small store like this opened in the Amli, a Ducati shop even opened by it. Both failed due to there just not being enough street parking and ease of access. However, I believe both proved that there was indeed merit to having such shops and spaces downtown. In the coming years Whole Foods Downtown was built and has been a huge success there.

    I have my own idea for a store to open downtown, all in time 🙂

  13. A thousand times, yes please! Resoundingly. After living downtown in my portion of metro cities across the globe I would have to throw in my $.02, with: bodegas, bodegas, bodegas!! I’m sure tourists would visit local owned haunts, and eat at local owned deli’s & the not downtown, in addition to their usual tourist itineraries.
    Who doesn’t like to get a more personal view of the city they’re exploring?
    Let me testify,lol, a locally owned coffe shop in an up and coming artist/urban living area in Denver is still, I swear, some of the best french press coffee I’ve ever had in my life. 🙂

    It definitely seems like when casual chat comes up about downtown San Antonio, people would much prefer this vision of downtown SA vs one where our city skyline (as well as our eye line) is tattered with big box’s and chain’s abound.

  14. I agree totally. This is what I have been saying at every meeting and in every discussion.
    IMO, the people proposing a 20,000 sq ft grocery have never lived in an urban area.
    I shop at Pearl and Main plaza farmers markets for most of my food. Once a month or so, I go to either Olmos or Lincoln Hts HEB to buy basics. Every so often I go to Central Market for specialty items.

    • While I do agree that small stores should be able to work. I do remember living across the street from whole foods downtown in Austin and it being awesome to have a place that was much more then just a grocery store. If we could have a place that not only provided groceries, but a cultural and social experience that could extend and transcend the current downtown environment I think it would go a long way. I still feel we are a little ways off from having such a place, but it would be interesting…

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