Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The High Costco of Bloomberg's Environmentalism

Yesterday we had speculated about what Mayor Mike, that recently minted environmental activist, would do about a proposal to bring the auto-dependent box store Costco to an awkward location on midtown. Speculate no more. As the NY Sun reports this morning Bloomberg, when confronted with the choice of deciding between his new green status and a big business, predictably knee-jerked in favor of the business: "The proposal to build a Costco store in an apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side is gaining an important supporter: Mayor Bloomberg. At a press conference yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg said bringing the big-box warehouse chain to the city would help New Yorkers weather a difficult economic downturn. "Costco has a reputation of selling in bulk at very low prices, and given the economy today and the public's desire to buy things in bulk and buy them cheaper, it seems to me we should welcome any store that wants to come here," he said."

Bloomberg's support of the Costco proposal underscores the genuine phoniness of his environmental advocacy. He proclaims the store's virtues without even a cursory examination of the putative location; and without even allowing for the caveat of awaiting an environmental review. But then again this is the same enviro who proposed putting a football stadium a few blocks south of the current box store proposal.

Costco will generate tens of thousands of additional car and truck trips down already heavily trafficked Eleventh Avenue. As we told the Sun: "A spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, Richard Lipsky, said the Costco store would run counter to another administration priority: reducing traffic. "It is incongruous for the mayor, who supported congestion pricing, to support one of the most auto-dependent retailers in the country," Mr. Lipsky said."

The mayor, unmindful of his own supermarket commission and the way that the box stores erode neighborhood stores, simply can't help himself; appearing to comment here by rote: "If Costco or any other store or company wants to come here, we'd love to be a catalyst and help them find land, create the kind of jobs we need in this city, and give our citizens the opportunity to have a broader range of goods to buy at better prices," Mr. Bloomberg said. "That's what competition is all about."

Pat Purcell offers this rebuttal: "The director of special projects for the grocery workers' union, UFCW 1500, Patrick Purcell, said he was disappointed by the mayor's support for Costco. He noted that a report by the city Planning Commission earlier this year called for creating more supermarkets, a goal he said would be thwarted by competition from Costco. "All this warehouse club is going to do is close markets," Mr. Purcell said in an interview. "It goes counter to everything the administration is doing to bring supermarkets into the city."

None of this thwarts the Sun's strong support for box stores. As the paper editorialized yesterday: "It strikes us as awfully reactionary for a dynamic town. Is this really what politics have come to in Manhattan, the capital of capitalism in America? If our politicians are so opposed to traffic, let them move to the Badlands, where a mail truck passes by once a day. New York is a city, for heaven's sake, full of things that people want to get to and see, which entails cars and trucks and, yes, traffic."

To be fair the Sun, unlike Bloomberg, never supported the congestion tax, so the paper can't be labeled as hypocritical as the mayor now appears. Nevertheless, this location is probably one of the worse we've seen for a store of this size that relies heavily on consumer car traffic. Here's the Sun's view: "We wouldn't suggest that traffic be ignored. It should be planned for and ameliorated to the extent possible. But to allow it to dictate whether new stores can open in the city is an overreaction on the order of prohibiting affection in the city because it might result in children and our schools and subways are already too overcrowded."

According to this view, traffic concerns should never be a deal breaker. Perhaps the Sun should consult with the folks out at Tottenville who deep-sixed Wal-Mart, a store they actually liked, because of deep concern about the traffic in that community? And what about the Sun's view on consumer choice: "But why not let New Yorkers make their own choices of where to shop rather than allowing the politicians to artificially constrain the options?"

If followed literally, it would mean that the paper believes that the entire environmental review process should be scrapped; but why not put that to a vote? In the case of West Side Costco, Council member Brewer isn't ahead of the neighborhood curve, but reflecting deeply held sentiments. Box stores like Costco generate traffic from over a three and four mile radius of a location; making the immediate neighborhood suffer for the supposed economic benefits of others.

As for the economic downturn argument, we side with Pat Purcell. Box stores create an economic oasis in one location, while at the same time creating deserts in surrounding neighborhood shopping strips. That's why proposals for BJs stores in two sites in Brooklyn also make little sense at a time when supermarkets are disappearing in the neighborhoods of the city.

What the mayor's support does, however, is to put the lie to all of his PlaNYC blah, blah. You don't create an environmentally sustainable city by encouraging box stores that erode neighborhood shopping-much of which involves walking to the store. His cheer leading for Costco reminds us of the fable of the lion and the scorpion. When the lion agrees to take the scorpion across the river, and ends up being fatally bitten, he asks the scorpion why he would doom the both of them. The reply? "Because that's what scorpions do."