City centers can offer some of the best locations for retail. High-density, walkable neighborhoods of upwardly mobile residents are fertile ground for successful shopping and dining. But the conditions that make them desirable can also make them difficult, especially for larger stores. Oddly configured sites can present obstacles — from entitlement, to design, to delivery servicing — that scare away institutional retail developers.
But for the more adventurous among them there are solutions, which can pay off handsomely.
Design firm RDC has conceived projects in unorthodox locations with its Erewhon market configurations. The high-end organic grocer and café is gaining popularity in the Los Angeles area at a rapid rate, and RDC’s interior space plans allow access to difficult but valuable locations. These dense, urban neighborhoods have small, tight spaces, but they also offer heavy foot traffic and a young, upwardly mobile demographic that is crucial to Erewhon’s recent bursts of success, which includes profiles in the New York Times, Vogue and Vanity Fair. Erewhon’s sales volume per square foot is estimated to be far higher than most other grocers.
Because Erewhon seeks out spaces that other traditional grocery retailers would typically not consider, it is accustomed to multi-level buildings with structural, access, loading and space shape challenges. Full-service grocery stores would be difficult to put into these types of buildings as they are usually designed for regular retail or office uses. Additionally, their plumbing, HVAC, electrical and refrigeration systems are more complicated and require more space and paths above and below. The Erewhon and RDC collaboration centers around construction sites with peculiar shapes and unique spaces that lead to one-of-a-kind layouts and a boutique-style grocery experience.
RDC’s design for Erewhon Silver Lake, the company’s sixth L.A. location, is in a newly built multi-level, mixed-use property in the Silver Lake neighborhood east of Hollywood. It offers an exhibition kitchen, a pizza oven and prepared meals in addition to organic fine foods. The store has relatively large spaces for indoor and outdoor seating. This creates the feel of a restaurant and activates the property’s wide sidewalks and a breezeway that separates the space into two areas, which is also unique for retail grocery.
“The Erewhon strategy is to excel in locations that may not have loading docks or acres of parking — traditional grocery store demands — but deliver a sophisticated, urban clientele,” said RDC Job Captain Elise Kunihiro. “That’s our expertise as well: solving space problems or adapting funky buildings to best render the company’s identity.”
“Brick-and-mortar retail tends to be a formulaic industry, but that is not us,” said Erewhon Chief Development Officer Yuval Chiprut. “Attractive but difficult settings that most grocery stores avoid because of site constraints are often where we do best, in large part because of the efforts of RDC and Erewhon.”
The 11,600-square-foot Silver Lake location, which opened in September 2020 and took roughly 15 months to complete, presented some difficult design challenges for Erewhon and leasing/construction management firm Slated Projects. The lot housed two parking levels below the street grade, a retail level on-grade, and two residential levels above the retail level. The shell space that Erewhon leased was originally slated for up to five smaller tenant spaces. The slope along Santa Monica Boulevard, which fronts the property, created a stepped slab condition within the space. In the original multi-tenant plan, the slab was dealt with by placing a demising wall at the step. With Erewhon taking over the entire space, the 30-inch change in height was at the first third of the sales floor. The solution was to provide concrete support walls at 60 inches on center with structural foam inserts between the walls in order to bring the floor to a single level throughout.
The market required the 11,600 square feet in its entirety. However, the contiguous spaces available amounted to only 9,600 square feet, so an additional tenant space across the breezeway from the market was used for offices, a produce prep area, public restrooms and indoor dining.
Regulatory hurdles arose for RDC during the permit process. Roughly two-thirds of the floor slab was a double slab condition, with 30 inches between the finished slab and the structural slab below. Building codes require plumbing traps inside the store for floor drains and floor sinks to be within 24 inches of the tailpiece of the plumbing equipment. With the 30-inch space between slabs, the condition was non-compliant. To address the issue, the development team negotiated with the city of Los Angeles. It ultimately allowed the installation of electronic trap primers, which will automatically fill any pipes that are detected to have a low water level.
Deliveries were also a challenge as there was no traditional loading dock for trucks. The city granted a 70-foot loading zone along Santa Monica Boulevard, and a scissor lift was provided at the sidewalk level, with a dock door facing the street. Trucks were off-loaded onto the sidewalk, wheeled over to the scissor lift and raised up to the market level.
Additionally, Erewhon required a dedicated standard passenger elevator for its space. A new elevator was added to the existing building, which presented some structural issues. An 8-foot-by-10-foot opening in the existing street-level slab and two parking-level slabs below were required. In addition, the building sits on a 24-inch mat slab foundation, which had to be opened up for the elevator pit.
The biggest surprise for the design team came during construction. The building owner provided a drone image of the existing floor slab above the market prior to the new one being poured. It revealed dozens of electrical conduits entombed in the slab. As-built plans indicated a different routing than what was shown in the aerial image. The conduits were located where several large penetrations were required for an exhaust fan and air ducts. Further complicating the situation, X-ray scans were inconclusive in finding the exact locations within the slab.
A second scan team that specialized in locating electrical conduits was brought in. It used ground-penetrating radar and was able to accurately locate the conduits and mark them in the slab. RDC found just enough open space around the conduits to make the penetrations without cutting the conduits. Although the conduits were clearly marked by the scanning crew, the building power was shut down for periods when saw-cutting was taking place to avoid accidentally slicing into live conductors.
RDC includes innovative systems and construction processes in its Erewhon designs. At the Silver Lake store, the owners and designers incorporated an undulating brick pattern as an interior cladding material at check-out and food-prep counters. A custom modular brick was developed with a local material supplier that provided a thin face and thick face in a single module with a false joint between the two faces. The modular brick kept the undulating pattern consistent and reduced the number of vertical joints by 50%, which also reduced labor accordingly.
Finally, the construction documents were created with Revit, a 3-D design software. The level below the market was scanned to accurately locate existing plumbing lines and other obstacles that could be problematic for the new plumbing lines installed by Erewhon. The 3-D scans were incorporated into the 3-D Revit model.
Terry Todd is an associate principal with RDC.