Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Supermarkets Are Coming

The city did certify the zoning and tax initiative that seeks to make it easier for new supermarkets to go into areas that have been classified as under served. As City Room reported yesterday: "In an effort to combat obesity and poor nutrition, the Bloomberg administration has announced a proposal to encourage the development of grocery stores in low-income, poor-nutrition neighborhoods. Across the city, supermarkets and grocery stores have been driven out by slim margins, restrictive zoning requirements and high rents in recent years. But the new program — called Fresh, for Food Retail Expansion to Support Health — will use a novel combination of zoning changes and financial breaks to bring neighborhood grocery stores to 45 neighborhoods largely in northern Manhattan; the Bronx; Jamaica, Queens; and central Brooklyn."

But the one underlying cause that is left unstated is, of course, the very variable that the city has most control over: the high cost of doing business; and nothing in the current proposal really addresses that key issue. Then there's the issue of the kinds of jobs that the city may be promoting in this initiative. Or rather, what is left out of the equation-the need to insure that the new store development doesn't encourage wage levels that are below those of unionized stores already doing business in the targeted areas.

Which leads to the other obvious fallacy here: the impact that new store development will have on existing stores and their employees. Without reducing the over all cost of doing business, and with less subsidies for the stores who have been in the neighborhoods for years, we have what amounts to an unlevel playing field for both operators and workers-and this needs to be addressed in the ULURP process.

After all, if this policy is designed to "combat obesity and poor nutrition," than insuring that existing stores aren't forced out should be equally compelling-aside from issues of basic fairness. As City Room points out: "A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that supermarkets and grocery stores reduced the incidence of obese and overweight residents in a neighborhood." But, as we always say on these health related measures, the health of the neighborhood economy is just as important-which means viable stores with good jobs, family wages and benefits.

So we expect that the current plan will be modified as the process winds its way towards final resolution at the city council. It is, however, high time that this crucial supermarket disappearance problem was addressed; as long as we all maintain the proper focus.