Thursday, June 12, 2008

Planning for Food Security

There's an incisive article on food access by Tom Angotti, posted today on the Gotham Gazette web site. The piece examines the dangerous trend in supermarket disappearance and also the extent to which city planners can make a difference in providing access to healthy foods in city neighborhoods: "On retail strips all over the city, skyrocketing rents are forcing food retailers out. Instead of groceries, boutiques, banks and drug chains have set up shop. This alarming decline in supermarkets has reduced options for healthy nutritional choices, a recent New York Times article warned. In place of grocery stores, consumers often have to rely on fast food outlets that offer few healthy choices, or other retail outlets like chain-operated drug stores that sell a limited stock of packaged foods."

Angotti takes a look at the recently released City Planning report on supermarkets and is underwhelmed: "The study cites the public benefits that supermarkets bring to neighborhoods as well as barriers confronting food retailers... In light of the magnitude of the problem, the recommendations in the study appear a bit anemic, failing to take an in-depth look at the many ways land use planning can make a difference."

In particular, he points out that unilaterally removing the 10,000 sq. ft. limitation on supermarkets in industrial zones is unlikely to reverse the trend of supermarket loss: "For example, the report calls for removing the limit of 10,000 square feet for food retailers in light manufacturing districts. City Planning, though, proposed this in the 1990s only to see it defeated in the face of widespread concern that the measure would lead to a rush of big box stores and threaten the viability of industrial areas. After the department's recent spate of rezonings throughout the city, there is less industrially zoned land near residential neighborhoods than there was then, but still no guarantee that rezoning them would bring anything but big boxes and condominiums."

Since we were intimately involved in that particular zoning battle we would tend to agree with Angotti. That doesn't mean, however, that selective rezonings of targeted industrial sites won't be helpful in certain areas. We part company with Professor Angotti when he gets all romantic on us with his rhapsody on herb gardening and food co-ops. The key challenge is to provide space for new markets and to insure that the older stores can afford to remain.

As Angotti points out, and we agree: "Increasing the amount of land available for retail space and supermarkets is only a part of the solution. More - and larger -- retail space in no way guarantees that food will be more accessible to those who need it the most, especially if retail rents are so high that only gourmet stores will survive. While supermarkets may offer more choices, they too can become high-end boutiques. Unless the strategy of opening up more land is accompanied by one that increases the demand for and access to low-cost healthy food, all the stores in the universe won't solve the problem."

The need is to insure that the local supermarket can afford to stay as real estate values rise: "Any policy must also insure long-term access. Unless it can be sustained through periods of real estate peaks and troughs, we will not have community food security - an internationally recognized concept used to plan for food that, if incorporated into New York City's food and land use policies, would help overcome the epidemics of diabetes and obesity."

Supermarket operators must be given the opportunity to purchase their sites; leasing is only a short-term solution that has become problematic all over the city has old leases expire and landlords look to gain maximum value from their properties. Angotti, however, sees commercial rent regulation as the only possible solution: "There is one regulatory measure the city (and state) could use to stop the rising rate of decline in food retailing space in neighborhoods - commercial rent control. It is the perpetual bane of the city's powerful real estate industry, but is probably the only thing that will work to stem the loss of neighborhood retailers."

We're not convinced that rent control's the answer, but we do feel that the neighborhood retailers of all stripes are rapidly becoming extinct as the invasion of the chains squeezes the life and uniqueness out of all the city's local shopping areas. The next mayor will certainly have a difficult job ahead to meet the local supermarket deficit challenge. That is, if Mayor Mike doesn't find some solid short term solutions in the year and a half he has left..