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Sep 16

22,419-to-1: Forest Grove’s Not-So-Golden Ratio

22,419 to 1. What does this figure mean? It’s a rather dubious figure for Forest Grove, which illustrates one of the major issues facing the city. This ratio represents grocery stores per capita within the city. With a population approximately 22,419 residents, per the 2013 estimates of the US Census Bureau, Forest Grove only has a single grocery store: the Safeway at Ballad Towne Square, at the east end of the Pacific Ave/19th Ave couplet. When someone states that Forest Grove is not a full-service city (or, at best, barely qualifies as one), this particular point is often invoked.

Comparisons

I was curious to see what these ratios looked like in other cities in the region, so I spent some time researching other incorporated cities in Washington County, plus cities of comparable population in Yamhill and western Clackamas County. The results of this research underscores just how dismally underserved Forest Grove is with respect to this rather critical retail service. The criteria I used was that in order for a grocery store to be counted for a particular city, it must lie inside the city limits, and it must have a full range of products, including a sizable produce section. Thus, convenience stores (i.e. 7-Eleven, Plaid Pantry) are excluded, but specialty stores like Uwajimaya in Beaverton–which has a produce section–are included.

The data is shown in the table below, ordered from low to high with respect to population per qualifying store. The city of Durham (pop. 1,922) is not included, as there are zero grocery stores within its city limits.

City Population No. of Grocery Stores Population per Store
Gaston 663 1 663
Banks 1,860 1 1,860
North Plains 2,029 1 2,029
King City 3,498 1 3,498
Wilsonville 21,484 6 3,581
Lake Oswego 37,610 8 4,701
Sherwood 18,884 4 4,721
Tigard 50,444 9 5,605
Canby 16,866 3 5,622
Newberg 22,508 4 5,627
Cornelius 12,161 2 6,081
Hillsboro 97,368 16 6,086
West Linn 25,992 4 6,498
McMinnville 33,131 5 6,626
Tualatin 26,879 4 6,720
Beaverton 93,542 13 7,196
Forest Grove 22,419 1 22,419

The only other cities in the study area that have just a single grocery store are Gaston, Banks, North Plains (whose store is quite small), and King City, all of which have a population of less than 3,500, compared to Forest Grove’s 22,419. Forest Grove’s figure is over 3 times the next highest ratio, which belongs to Beaverton (7,196 people per grocery store).

Let’s look at this in visual form, which really highlights Forest Grove’s not-so-golden ratio. Forest Grove is shown in bright red. (click to enlarge)

pop-per-groc-store

Sticks out like a (very long) sore thumb, does it not?

One possible counter-argument that one might level with this research is that Cornelius’ 2 grocery stores (Fred Meyer and Walmart) are close enough by that they act as de facto stores for Forest Grove. That said, even if we include them–in which case, we’d realistically have to include Cornelius’ 12,161 residents in our calculations, giving us a population figure of 34,580–the result would be a ratio of 11,526 people per store, which is still considerably higher than Beaverton’s ratio. Furthermore, if we include stores in close proximity that technically lie in the next town, or in an unincorporated area, we’d similarly have to decrease these other city’s figures, possibly quite substantially. Beaverton’s ratio would be especially affected, with several of the stores along SW Scholls Ferry Road and Barrows Road (which demarcate the boundary between Beaverton and Tigard) would have to be included, as would the Safeway on NW Cornell Road in the Cedar Mill area, which is in unincorporated Washington County, but within throwing distance of the city limits. And Durham, the aforementioned example without a grocery store, lies within walking distance of the Whole Foods in Tualatin. Even if one makes this particular point, it only serves to further underscore the fact that Forest Grove is severely lacking in this department.

History

Forest Grove was not always so underserved in the grocery department. When my family moved back to Forest Grove in 1995, after a few years in Aloha, Forest Grove’s population was only around 14,000, and there were actually two grocery stores here. Up until the early 2000s, the independent Da Boys Market (which still operates in Carlton), had a location at the Forest Grove Center, on Pacific Avenue between Cedar and Douglas Streets, giving Forest Grove a population-to-store ratio comparable to Beaverton’s. The store occupied the space currently filled by 1440 Fitness and a defunct acupuncture/massage clinic, and while it wasn’t a particularly large store, it was conveniently located right next to the university, and it helped round out our commercial base.

Additionally, in the mid-to-late-1990s, both Albertsons and Haggen were interested in opening stores in Forest Grove. Albertson’s was interested in the parcel right at the corner of Pacific Avenue (Highway 8) and Highway 47, while Haggen planned to build just a block to the east, right across from the Rose Grove mobile home park. Both pursued the idea quite seriously, with Albertson’s buying and demolishing several houses on Poplar Street, and as the original Ace Hardware building had been located on the Haggen site, it relocated to the new building right at corner of Pacific and Highway 47 it presently occupies. You can also still see the remnants of the unfinished traffic signal installation on Pacific, between Highway 47 and Mountain View, marking where the driveway would have been, as well as security fencing around the site.

Why did Albertsons and Haggen ultimately back out? Haggen, after all that work, did a bit more market research, and, looking only at the immediate East Forest Grove/West Cornelius area, which tends to be lower-income, decided that the area wasn’t consistent with their market, and gave up on Forest Grove. In the years following, they ended up closing their Tanasbourne and Beaverton stores, leaving only the Tualatin location open. As far as Albertsons go, it ultimately came down to street access, with the city reluctant toward the company’s plan to close Poplar Street, and ODOT wanting to place access restrictions on the intersection with 19th Avenue and Highway 47. Also, curiously, the city at that point thought that it had “too much commercial zoning“, arguably presaging our city’s descent toward “bedroom community” status. We went from being a town of 14,000 that almost had 4 grocery stores (and ratio on par with Wilsonville’s), to a town of 22,419 with just one.

Future

How do we get out of this predicament? That’s a key question I hope to help solve if elected. While the Johnson Reid study that the city commissioned last year (brief synopsis here) suggests that the Times Litho property that the city controversially purchased would be viable for “some level of specialty grocery”, I am skeptical. (I’ll address Times Litho in a later post–in short, I would have been a “no” vote had I been on the council then.) Judging by the situation with the Albertsons and Haggen proposals, and the considerable amount of vacant commercial property along Highway 8, I think our best option is to explore the potential for zoning large commercial parcels on the north side of town, such as along the David Hill Road extension. Forest Grove has had explosive residential growth in this area, some of which is more likely to fit the demographics of a company like New Seasons or Trader Joe’s, which the city has expressed an interest in attracting.

Almost all commercial zoning in Forest Grove is within one block of Highway 8, which, as we continue to grow farther north, is becoming difficult to reach for all these newer residents we’ve added to the city, who are more likely to drive to the north end of Hillsboro to do their shopping. And by locating businesses closer to all this growth, we will be reducing traffic congestion and creating a full-service community. If we convert some of the overabundant residential zoning in this part of Forest Grove over to other uses, we stand a chance of attracting the types of services we currently lack. In turn, this may lead companies and consumers to look at our city in a different light, as a viable place to do business and shop, and not just a lifeless bedroom community.

I’ll be posting more of these policy write-ups in the coming weeks leading up to the election. If you’d like to add your voice to the discussion on this issue, follow the discussion on social media, via my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/AlexForFG), or on Twitter (@AlexForFG).

-Alexander