East facade of Hawthorne Safeway (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Eight years ago the Safeway supermarket chain built an exemplary urban store in downtown Portland. With housing above the store for density (a first for the company), a LEED rating showing its sustainability and a simple, elegant design by GBD Architects, it showed a nationwide corporation with the smarts and nimbleness to not simply build a cookie-cutter store but adapt to Portland.
“We wanted an urban store with a vibrant streetscape,” Safeway public affairs director Bridget Flanagan told me for a Metropolis magazine story back in 2004, “a store that worked for the community.”
Apparently that was a one-time thing, for the new Safeway on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, whatever new amenities it may have, is a much diferent story.
Living just off Hawthorne Boulevard for the past 14 years, I shopped countless times at the old, circa-1966 Safeway at 2800 SE Hawthorne. Chances are I'll shop there many times in the future.
But when those shopping trips happen, I'll always be holding my nose. There's just no other way to put it: this is one seriously ugly monstrosity of a grocery store.
This Safeway offers a lot more space and grocery/food offerings. By burying the old front parking lot underground and building a bigger building all the way up to the street, the store is going from about 33,000 square feet to over 55,000. You can be sure the old Safeway never had a sushi bar, but this one does. The old deli counter with fried chicken and stale Chinese food has been replace by a much more expansive offering of prepared foods. The old Starbucks kiosk inside has become a full-fledged Starbucks with seating and even a fireplace.
But even from blocks away, the Safeway feels needlessly oversized for the neighborhood with its prison-like pair of towers bracketing the front edges of the buiding. The building is just a concrete box, yet a neo-historic facade has been affixed to the front with about as much authenticity as an Old West movie town made in Hollywood. For goodness sake, while visiting recently I even encountered one portion of the northern facade in which an awning extended over windowless concrete block (as you can see in the photo at the top of this post).
Theoretically, it's a more urban store because the parking is underground. But it could not feel much more suburban in its bland stylistic ubiquity, especially given how the added density only led to a bigger store, not a mixed-use building with offices or housing above. Admittedly the zoning didn't allow the latter, but that might have led Safeway to build something less outsized from the single-family homes in the surrounding neighborhood. It's as if the company had two small parking spots and parked one huge SUV there.
The store is officially designed by Lake Oswego firm Benner Stange Strange (lead architect) and supported by the Portland office of Bellevue firm Mulvanny G2 (architect of record). But I consider Safeway to be the culprit here, for the Hawthorne Safeway is just another unit in its assembly line of "Lifestyle Stores" being built around the country that feature added prepared foods and earth-toned interiors. It's true there isn't the same feeling of oppressive fluorescent lights, but there's also less natural light coming into the store. How could you in 2012, in Portland - a sustainable capitol and a largely overcast climate - tear down one store and build another with less natural light?
And by the way, this Safeway will not, unlike the one downtown, apply for LEED certification. So you can't even say this ugly duckling possess an inner swan. It's apparently as bloated as it looks.
At the front of the store, as with the back entrance of the renovated Fred Meyer just up Hawthorne, wayfinding is a comedy of errors. Just when one reaches a giant set of glass double doors, it becomes apparent this is only the exit. To enter the store via the official entrance can take one on a winding, counter-intuitive path. Who says a wide glass door has to be only an entry or exit point? At the corner of the building's front, just where the architecture leads you to a door, there's a concrete wall. It all makes you feel like a rat in a maze.
It wouldn't have taken Safeway much effort to create a more nuanced design that better fits the Hawthorne district. All they would have had to do was work with the neighborhood and listen to what shoppers want, then to hire a local Portland firm and give them the freedom to truly engage in the act of design: not to simply put lipstick on a pig by affixing neo-historic faux facades to the front of the concrete box but to truly design a store from the inside out and outside in. Chances are the architects at Benner Strange and Mulvanny G2 did as much as they could given Safeways parameters. Just make our spaceship fit the landing pad.
Safeway could easily have looked at Portland and learned from a local chain exploding with growth by doing things the right way: New Seasons Market. Maybe this isn't a direct comparison, for New Seasons caters to higher-income shoppers for whom things like organic produce are a baseline, not a luxury. Yet beyond the groceries or the demographics, New Seasons builds stores teeming with natural light that, in most cases, feel effortlessly urban even without having any housing or offices above their stores. It's all about having designers and clients who listen to the needs of customers and communities.
Like I said, I'll probably still shop at the Hawthorne Safeway. The cost of food, even basic items, has increased substantially over the past decade. Safeway, as with chains like Costco or even Fred Meyer, can offer more competitive pricess on most groceries than New Seasons, Zupans or other local higher-end supermarkets. Yet that's no reason the chain had to scrimp on design or act so heavy-handed and distant. Whether it's the company's refusal to sign a neighborhood agreement with residents living near the store or how this Hawthorne Safeway is basically the same as any in its chain, the company is epitomizing the kind of ham-fisted, tone-deaf behavior that has coalesced much of America against giant corporations.