Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sun Spots Times Grocery "Errors"

The NY Sun can always be counted on for a contrarian view; orthodox perspectives are not its usual metier. So we weren't surprised this morning to read the paper's editorial taking issue with the NY Times article on supermarkets by David Gonzales. Unfortunately, the editorialists were limited to, well, a very limited perspective when offering its critique.

The Sun took issue with the description of the supermarket problems being faced by the folks at the Ingersoll Houses, problems exacerbated by the closing of the Associated directly across the street from the housing. In doing so, they proceeded to make light of a city wide problem which they clearly have no depth of understanding of.

Here's the paper's take: "Well, there may in fact be a shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables at some parts of New York City, but reporting finds there is not one in the Ingersoll Houses. What happened in Fort Greene is that the city and state and federal governments lavished subsidies on a nearby Target and Pathmark that put an un-subsidized supermarket nearby out of business, while the above-cited raft of government programs failed to solve the fruit and vegetable crisis. So the city is preparing to abridge the rights of property owners to lease their property to the highest bidder and instead to mandate leasing to supermarkets. Are Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Burden themselves to ride through the city deciding the sites of supermarkets by fiat?"

Can anyone figure what the heck they're talking about? Mandating leasing to supermarkets? Where's that coming from? Oh yes, there is a mention in the Times piece about the anger of a community board official in the Bronx about the Vornado Distrusters eviction of the local Key Food. But can't someone at the Sun read?

Here's the relevant passage: "Another city political figure is quoted in the story as threatening to bar a private property owner from leasing to anything but a supermarket." First of all, to call a community board member a city official is quite a stretch-and what power does a community board possess? But that's not what the article said.

Here's the Times perspective: "Whatever plans the company has for the site are bound to face opposition from the local community board, whose members expect to meet with Vornado executives this week. Enrique Vega, the chairman of Community Board 9 in the Bronx, said the board would not allow anything but a supermarket on the site.“They are in deep trouble if they think they are going to put another type of store there,” Mr. Vega said. “They’ll need a variance or an agreement with the community board, and they are not going to get it. We want a supermarket.”

What Mr. Vega's saying here, is that if Vornado wants to knock down and/or expand the existing structure it's going to need a variance; and the last time we looked a variance was a discretionary city action. If the local community would rather see its four decade old supermarket remain, and Vornado has different ideas, then the real estate company can replace the Key Food with a different use in its existing building. Otherwise, as soon as it gets into a zoning change situation, it proceeds at its own peril. Unless the Sun also sees zoning as an unfair abridgement of property rights.

Likewise, if city electeds feel that the eviction of the supermarket by a company that has lived large feeding at the public trough is an act against the public good, then these officials can decide to begin to treat Vornado as person non grata when it comes to the bennies that the company has become accustomed to.

Taking this a step further. If the city feels that a supermarket in the Bruckner shopping center is in the public interest-because of the health issues that the Sun likes to ridicule-than it has every right to exercise the right of eminent domain to take the center from Vronado and insure that Soundview has access to healthy foods. And wouldn't that be a kick? The rich evicter getting evicted in turn. We'd pay to see that happen.

Now we're as free market as anyone, but we also no that zoning can be an important tool to direct the flow of free market activities. We also know that the obesity crisis is not caused by the paucity of supermarkets, but their disappearance is no good for the physical and economic health of New York City.

As supermarket after supermarket closes, the Sun's take on all of this-"Rather than invent a crisis of obesity caused by a lack of supermarkets, Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Burden could benefit by walking around the city. Somehow people have a way of finding what to eat without a whole lot of meddling by the politicians"-is just way too cavalier.