When Growth Isn’t Good

The dangers of uprooting our “Home Trees”

| March-April 2010

Here follows a lament. My neighborhood grocer, Linden Hills Co-op, recently announced that it’s relocating from the center of a vibrant urban village to the site of a failed supermarket on a busy thoroughfare nearly a mile away. I think the people who initiated the move, driven in large part by the co-op’s inability to negotiate a new lease with its current landlord, are well meaning. However, their overall approach depends on accepting the misguided maxim that growth is always good.

Linden Hills Co-op, one of the most successful natural foods stores in North America, is the heart and soul of its southwest Minneapolis neighborhood. It’s doing over $9.2 million a year in sales, has more than 5,200 member-owners, and every day brings through its doors more than a thousand customers, many of whom go on to shop at other local businesses. It was founded 34 years ago to serve as a neighborhood crossroads where high-quality food and amity converge, and it has fulfilled that mission profitably and sustainably.

The irony is that the controversy brewing around the move is a direct result of the co-op’s success. Once a labor of love and commitment, the community market thrived because of its modest size and generous character. Now most of the co-op’s managers, board, and staff live outside the immediate neighborhood, which helps explain why member-owners and neighbors were never consulted nor given an opportunity to vote on the proposed relocation. Many of us didn’t even know the move was being contemplated until after the board announced it had signed a lease.

In explaining the relocation, the member services manager wrote in the co-op’s bimonthly newsletter that the new site’s larger footprint will allow for “an expanded deli, new options in sustainable and local meat and seafood, and more offerings in grocery, fresh bakery, and frozen foods.” There’s also the promise of “10 to 12 new staff positions.”

It’s an alluring upgrade, especially in times of high unemployment, but in my estimation the benefits of growth are offset by the damage that will likely be done to surrounding merchants and Linden Hills’ storied spirit of camaraderie. The co-op’s slogan, proudly hanging in front of the store, declares that the space is “large enough to meet your needs and small enough to meet your neighbors.”

Like many natural foods stores across the United States, Linden Hills Co-op serves as the community’s “Home Tree” (a name given to the gigantic tree in James Cameron’s recent film, Avatar, where the protagonists commune and stand against hostile interests). Moving nearly a mile away from the small commercial district that it anchors may or may not be good for the tree, but displacement risks disrupting the local ecosystem from which it is being uprooted.

4/26/2010 8:02:10 AM

Furthermore, are magazines exempt from the whole "small is beautiful" principle? Utne Reader has majorly expanded during its lifetime, so this article seems a bit hypocritical.

4/26/2010 7:55:44 AM

Elizabeth has a very good point. Before the Seward Co-op moved to a larger space, I would go back and forth between Seward and the Wedge. I still make the occasional trip to the Wedge, but I'm able to find much of what I want at the Seward co-op. There are particular products and companies that I want to support that not all co-ops carry. Seward was bursting at the seams and it was frustrating to shop there because people were constantly trying to maneuver carts around each other. Now it's a much more pleasant shopping experience and I don't cringe every time I walk through the produce aisle. With its slightly larger size, it is now bustling in a *good* way, which actually creates a greater sense of community than the old arrangement. Short of turning people away at the door, I'm not sure how Linden Hills could deal with the traffic/volume issue. You could create a bunch of little stores, but then people would just drive from store to store to get everything they want (and from what I've observed, residents of the Linden Hills area rely much more on cars than the Wedge and Seward folks).

christy kendall
3/22/2010 10:43:21 AM

"Sadness at losing what's familiar?" That's not Mr. Utne's point. His point, so clearly articulated: "We need open, public discussions, without a predetermined outcome, in order to give collective wisdom a chance to emerge." I wholeheartedly agree. I live in this neighborhood, have been a co-op member for the 9 years, and would have liked my opinion heard. "I can't imagine this wasn't a matter of public record," says one comment above. Start imagining just that. I went out of my way to investigate rumors of a possible move. The staff knew nothing. The Linden Hills neighborhood board, whom I wrote, knew nothing. And, digging into public records, here's what I uncovered: "Alternative development plans may be under consideration, but property owner has no additional comment at this time." I was duped, as was the rest of this neighborhood. I am certain it was the intent of the board to make this public after the new lease was signed. Obviously, commerce trumps community here, and I'm sure the new location will do well sitting, quite literally, on the dividing line between Minneapolis, and a first tier suburb where housing prices and income are double the state average. Meanwhile, although I wasn't given a vote in this decision, I will vote the only way I can. I'll be frequenting the bakery and meat market in this urban village, and can--and will--find other ways to get local produce and dairy.

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