Monday, May 05, 2008

Times on Top of Supermarket Loss

In this morning's NY Times, David Gonzales does a masterful job at highlighting just how serious an issue the loss of NYC supermarkets really is. As he points out, citing the DCP study we've already commented on: "A continuing decline in the number of neighborhood supermarkets has made it harder for millions of New Yorkers to find fresh and affordable food within walking distance of their homes, according to a recent city study. The dearth of nearby supermarkets is most severe in minority and poor neighborhoods already beset by obesity, diabetes and heart disease."

Gonzales puts his finger on the real estate causes of the problem, and underscores just what a hardship this is to low income New Yorkers: "The supermarket closings — not confined to poor neighborhoods — result from rising rents and slim profit margins, among other causes. They have forced residents to take buses or cabs to the closest supermarkets in some areas. Those with cars can drive, but the price of gasoline is making some think twice about that option. In many places, residents said the lack of competition has led to rising prices in the remaining stores."

As we've commented, this loss of markets is amounting to a serious health crisis, one that the DCP planners have shed considerable light on: "Many people in low-income neighborhoods are spending their food budget at discount stores or pharmacies where there is no fresh produce,” said Amanda Burden, the city’s planning director. “In our study, a significant percentage of them reported that in the day before our survey, they had not eaten fresh fruit or vegetables. Not one. That really is a health crisis in the city.”

And Burden also points out that preserving supermarkets and building new ones should be an essential goal of public policy: "We have to determine why the stores are closing and what the barriers are,” Ms. Burden said. “Stimulating the investment of supermarket owners in these communities is essential to the future of the city.”

When the local market closes it poses an especially difficult problem for an area's elderly, often forced to walk many blocks to find their daily food staples. Gonzales finds two good examples of this: " In St. Albans, Queens, several empty supermarkets line the streets. Every day, Desiree Gaylord walks past a shuttered Associated store on Farmers Boulevard and on to her elderly mother’s house. “Before I go to work, I call to see what she needs,” Ms. Gaylord said. “I’ll buy it somewhere else and bring it to her. I don’t know why they closed that store. It was an asset, especially for the elderly. Now I see them on the bus with the shopping carts.”

And in Brooklyn, the closing of another Associated market has also caused havoc: "The residents of the Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, have been without their local supermarket since last year, when it was razed along with a strip of stores and restaurants to make room for new housing and retail developments. What used to be a quick jaunt across the street for Della Dorsett is now a tricky trek, as she maneuvers her electric wheelchair several blocks uphill along Myrtle Avenue, returning home with plastic bags dangling from handles and nestled between her feet."

The Times focus closes with a close look at the foreboding future being faced by the Soundview shoppers worried about the closing of their local Key Food: "The residents who live in the high-rises and private homes that ring Bruckner Plaza in the Bronx can relate to that. Their local supermarket, a Key Food on White Plains Road and the Bruckner Expressway, is the only one south of the expressway, tucked into a corner of the outdoor shopping center that also features a Kmart and assorted smaller stores."

The potential store closing is a direct stab in the back to the 100 union workers who make the Key Food such a successful fixture along Bruckner Boulevard: "At stake at the Bronx store are more than 100 jobs, many of them filled by local residents, including teenagers and single mothers. Some of the employees more or less grew up in the business, starting as teenagers with part-time, unionized jobs. The pay and benefits have helped them support their families, and even prosper." This is also one of the main economic development points of the DCP study.

All of this isn't sitting well with the local community board-or the rest of the residents in the Soundview area: "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.”

And the fight here will certainly be joined by the UFCW and all of its local unions: "Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents the store’s workers, have made this Key Food in the Bronx the poster child for a citywide campaign to preserve local supermarkets. “We’re at a point where landlords do not feel any concern that they are taking supermarkets out of communities,” said Pat Purcell, the union’s director of special projects. “They just want to maximize their profit. I get that, up to a point. But food is different. It affects your health.”

But this isn't Soundview's fight alone. As Gonzales' piece makes abundantly clear, this is a city wide issue of mounting concern for all elected officials. And the Alliance will be joining with many of these officials, and scores of local community groups, on May 28th at City Hall. Landlords like Vornado better watch their assets.