Blank wall bravado: a trendy neighborhood’s supermarket is more and less than meets the eye.

This article represents an interesting first.  Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long—15 years of blogging!—for someone to approach me about this while I was out snapping pics for my blog.  Given that I have over 20,000 photos consisting primarily of mailboxes, parking meters, cracked curbs, lonely utility poles, labelscars, and miscellany that would only otherwise grace the cover of a poetry anthology, it’s kind of surprising nobody has asked me this before.  But it finally happened: while I was moseying around the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh a bit ago, waiting to connect with friends for dinner, a woman approached me with an adversarial tone.  “What are you taking a photo of?!  It’s just a blank wall!  There’s nothing here!”   The photo below is the source of the accusation:

blank wall to Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh)

She’s not wrong.  I mean, it is just a big blank wall.  Certainly nothing to look at.  But that was the point.  Travel a bit further down the block, and the building reveals its use.  It’s an urban grocery store, part of the Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle chain.  Pivot to the right of the blank wall, and there’s the entrance.

blank wall to Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh)

The supermarket’s position, fronting the commercial main street of Murray Avenue, harnesses its neighborhood setting exactly as a mid-sized grocery store should, when occupying a fundamentally urban parcel.  Rather than greeting visitors with an enormous parking lot out front, the developers perched the building right to the lot line, abutting the sidewalk and encouraging entry by foot in this relatively high-density, pedestrian scaled mature neighborhood.

At the same time, this Giant Eagle, like most grocery stores, anticipates people entering to make purchases that will leave their hands very full.  Many patrons will live too far to carry their purchases all the way home, so a majority will still depend on vehicles—loading all those grocery bags into a big trunk and driving away.  This Giant Eagle on Murray Avenue inevitably has a parking lot, but it is discreet.

It’s tucked away there, underneath that fake pointy gable.  Zoom in and the cars are visible. But the lot isn’t accessible from Murray Avenue; any curb cuts are absent.  This aerial shows the exact layout of the structure on its parcel.

Though Murray Avenue is the more prominent commercial corridor, the parking lot is just to the east of the building’s frontage, and its access points are on two local, primarily residential streets: Bartlett Street to the north and Beacon Street to the south.  Excluding parking lot frontage on Murray Avenue isn’t just good for aesthetics (blank wall notwithstanding), it helps minimize traffic backups for vehicles turning into the Giant Eagle.  Supermarkets tend to yield high trip generation numbers, and two-lane Murray Avenue can’t handle such inflow easily.  I’ll concede that Beacon and Bartlett aren’t major streets either—they’re both more “local” than Murray—but at least the dual-pronged access splits the vehicular flow across two points, rather than concentrating it on the old-school commercial corridor.  Meanwhile, the entrance here on Murray primarily serves bikes and pedestrians, while providing a “teaser” view of the parking spaces beyond that little canopied entrance, south of the blank wall.  And the teaser is enough to indicate to most motorists unfamiliar with the area that they can find their parking on one of those two intersecting residential streets.

By most respects, this Giant Eagle is a paradigm of urban sensitivity: it gives the community a full-service supermarket and pharmacy without wrecking the commercial street wall.  Here’s a proximal street section showing both sides of Murray Avenue.

blank wall to Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh)

Most importantly, the Giant Eagle is not even new.  The earliest Google Street View images of Squirrel Hill, from July 2007, show it looking pretty much the same as it does today, minus an updated logo.  Given the architectural style, I wouldn’t be surprised if this Giant Eagle dates from the 1990s, long before most mega-chain supermarket developers had cultivated urban sensibilities.  Perhaps the planning community in Pittsburgh or one of the Squirrel Hill civic associations helped to advocate for a good design; they were far more likely to recognize the long-term viability of smart urban infill development before it went mainstream.  And Squirrel Hill has long been a premier Pittsburgh neighborhood.  Fortuitously situated between two of the city’s largest parks (Schenley to the west and Frick to the east), while only about four miles east of downtown, the neighborhood has held together even during the peak of Pittsburgh’s de-industrializing decline in the 1970s and 80s.  

The high-prestige character of Squirrel Hill undoubtedly prompted this better-than-average urban design at a time when such ventures were rare.  But therein lies the problem: it isn’t any better than better-than-average.  It was great by 1990s standards.  But, as much as I hate to cavil, it’s very 1990s.  Returning to the northern end of the building, which first caught my attention (and prompted the snarl from a nearby woman when I took the photo), it really is one heck of a blank wall.

blank wall to Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh)

Those windows are almost certainly ersatz, installed to help mitigate the otherwise fortress-like appearance.  This Giant Eagle can’t really escape the supermarket typology; grocery stores in general don’t depend on large window displays because they sell essential items.  No mannequins, no jewelry, no tantalizing toys.  Everyone needs food, and many aren’t going be choosy about storefront appeal.  Grocery stores sell large quantities of items in cramped spaces and need those walls for shelving; huge numbers of windows are impractical.  As a result, a sizable portion of this block of Murray Avenue is thick concrete that conceals the storage of merchandise: the proverbial blank wall.  Compare the previous photos of this block of Murray to the older, more engaging storefront façades of the neighboring blocks.

None of these buildings are contenders for the Annals of Architectural Acumen.  But they engage the eye more than 80% of the Giant Eagle frontage.  More importantly, they are multi-story, offering a Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) of 2.0 or 3.0, while the Giant Eagle is a tepid sub-1.0, which is nothing special in a mixed-use neighborhood like Squirrel Hill, which commands some of the highest residential real estate value in metro Pittsburgh up to the present.  And, of course, even with the walkable orientation of the building, two-thirds of the parcel consists of a parking lot, which is why the FAR is well below 1.0.

In short, the Giant Eagle is a product of its time, and it would be unfair to begrudge it for its shortcomings. It’s still a smarter use of space than 95% of American supermarkets.  But one can only imagine what could have sprouted on this parcel in a 2010s-era development.  Most likely it would have involved a multi-story building—four or five stories would have been most suitable to match Squirrel Hill’s medium density character—with the supermarket on the first floor as an anchor tenant, combined with four or five smaller storefront spaces under the same roof to entice in-line tenants: restaurants, coffee shops, pilates studios, pet meditation centers.  That type of thing.  If the market capitalization would justify it, the developer might even excavate to provide that fully underground parking garage.  The Murray Avenue Giant Eagle in this current incarnation simply isn’t a highest and best use, at least not by current cultural standards for real estate development in highly desirable urban mixed-use neighborhoods.  The development advocates would have pushed for something better than that blank wall.

I wish no ill will on the Giant Eagle company or whatever development arm conceived this building thirty-odd years ago.  (Heck, maybe many more.)  All it represents is the self-defeating character of a relentlessly aspirational ethos: perpetual activism tends to abrogate its accomplishments in astonishingly short time.  I can only hearken back to the consonant chorus of bicycle advocates in the early 2000s, when the goal was a comprehensive network of urban bike lanes, consisting primarily of dedicated space (about three feet wide) demarcated with a white stripe and a bicycle emblem painted in the lane.  Perfectly good in 2004.  Twenty years later, as even small cities often feature fairly robust bike networks, the claque of activists has completely abandoned the painted white stripe.  “As good as useless!” they say.  Bike lanes today must be cycle tracks, protected with bollards or a complete separate curb.  Anything else is a compromise on safety that cedes territory (spatial and rhetorical) to the almighty automobile.  How long before the five-story mixed use apartment building with a first-floor supermarket is passé?

At a certain point, my quixotic hope is that the perpetual activists (who rarely live where they seek to foment their urban revolution) will let well enough alone and stop cudgeling the good for being the enemy of the perfect.  At that point, the long-time Squirrel Hill residents can tell the activists what I said to that officious lady while I was taking photos of the corner blank wall: “Mind your own business!”

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2 thoughts on “Blank wall bravado: a trendy neighborhood’s supermarket is more and less than meets the eye.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yes, they are quite the dominant force in Western PA! And then in eastern PA there’s another chain with a confusingly similar name (The Giant Company), which is also almost identical but not the same as Giant Foods in Maryland (two brands purchased by the same parent, Ahold Delhaize, but operating independently as “Giant” with slightly different logos). The embarrassing reason I know this is because I nerded out on the topic last year: https://dirtamericana.com/2023/08/giant-supermarkets-carlisle-landover-neon/

      I imagine the only thing keeping Giant Eagle from expanding to the DC area is that it would be too confusing…thanks to the name.

      Reply

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