Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Showtime at the Armory: Supermarket in the Eye of the Storm

The battle over the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory gets going in full force tonight as CB# 7 holds its first land use hearing on the application of the Related Cos. to convert the facility into a retail mall. As the Observer reports: "It’s probably safe to assume that the faculty dining room at the Bronx’s Lehman College will be packed the evening of June 24 with a lot of people wanting a lot of things from the Related Companies. The prolific developer is coming before Community Board 7 to discuss its planned development of the behemoth Kingsbridge Armory, a whale of a 92-year-old, 588,000-square-foot building just beyond Manhattan. The city has been trying to develop the building for years, and now Related, led by Stephen Ross, is preparing to convert it into a $323 million shopping center, complete with cinemas, a fitness center and to-be-determined retailers."

And some battle it will be-with neighborhood coalitions, union workers, small business representatives, and supermarket owners all scheduled to come out to protest aspects of the proposed plan; with the expected fight over wages looking like a real contentious issue: "The central issue that’s emerged: Union and community groups are demanding retailers that pay a “livable wage.” Related is balking, saying that such a requirement would force it to scrap the project, leaving the site vacant."

And then there's the supermarket issue. We testified yesterday at a city council hearing on, "fresh food in NYC neighborhoods," and made the following points: "In 2008, the Department of City Planning conducted a study that determined that a supermarket gap existed in NYC. As the department’s report stated; “There is enormous capacity for new supermarkets throughout the city. NYC has the potential to capture approximately $1 billion in lost grocery sales to suburbs. The loss in sales is enough to support more than 100 new neighborhood grocery stores and supermarkets.”
Absent from the analysis, however, is the fact that-over the past eight or nine years-the city has lost over 300 local supermarkets. So, if indeed there is a gap, than the gap has come as a result of the loss of existing markets. But instead of addressing the disappearance factor-the underlying causes of store closings-City Planning devised an elaborate plan for incentivizing new market penetration in areas it considers to be underserved."

Which gets to the heart of what's at stake in tonight's official launch of the Armory ULURP. The plan by Related to place a 60,000 sq. ft. suburban-style store in the Armory would lead to the loss of at least four local supermarkets-the average when stores of this size are parachuted into city neighborhoods. Which is why, as the Observer points out: "Nearby supermarket chain Morton Williams is also pressuring local electeds to have Related rule out a grocery store within the armory."

This is a good trade off? Not in our view. In fact, even in the city's own incentive plan, new store size is capped at 30,000 sq. ft.-half the size of the one that Related proposes. The city recognizes neighborhood ecology in its plan; while Related proposes an outsized market that, while it may create an oasis at the Armory, will likely create retail deserts everywhere else. And, if successful, they will do so with $17 million of the tax payers' money.

It simply makes no sense to promote supermarkets in the city if, at the same time, planners are encouraging large suburban style markets and/or food selling box stores. In the reported aim of staunching the outflow of city shoppers, the likely alternative result will be the cannibalization of existing supermarkets-hastening their demise.

So the Armory fight pits the city against itself. It can't say it wants to promote supermarkets in the neighborhoods-using public health as the rationale-while, at the same time, promoting the kinds of developments that will contribute to the exact opposite effect. The fight over the supermarket at Kingsbridge puts this issue forward with great clarity; and, from what we're hearing, the Bronx council delegation-including Maria Baez, the local member from the area, understand what's a stake.

We're encouraged so far with the support that Morton Williams is getting in this life and death struggle for the soul of the neighborhood's economic viability. It's beginning to look a lot like another similar fight; and we'll give the Observer the last word: "But it’s worth noting that before Related’s victory at the Bronx Terminal Market, the firm suffered a rare loss on a land-use project in the borough a year earlier, under circumstances similar to those today. Related wanted to put a 130,000-square-foot BJ’s along Brush Avenue, only to see it voted down in a key City Council subcommittee."