Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Destination: Supermarket

The Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner is always a good read, particularly for their coverage of parking issues in the borough. They've been covering the controversy over plans to tear down the historic Officers' Row (a.k.a. Admiral's Row) in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to make room for parking for a supermarket.

For those who haven't been following this particular insanity, let me try to summarize it. The Brooklyn Navy Yard is being redeveloped into a mixed-use site, but there are currently no plans for housing, and the only housing that it's really convenient to are the Ingersoll, Whitman and Farragut subsidized housing projects. The developers want to build a supermarket there, but since not that many people live within walking distance, they want to build a 400-space parking lot so that people who live within a few miles can drive, the way they now drive to the Fairway supermarkets in Red Hook and Harlem. It would be too expensive to build rooftop parking or a garage, and there's not enough space for the supermarket and the parking lot, so they want to tear down a row of ten nineteenth-century houses.

The kicker is that the projects don't currently have a convenient supermarket, especially since Gristede's owner John Catsimatidis demolished one on Myrtle Avenue to make room for a new development. The Navy Yard developers have convinced local politicians that the only way for the project residents to get good food is to build this parking lot, setting it up as a conflict between poor, undernourished minority children and heartless wealthy historic-architecture fetishists.

This week, Brownstoner has the latest news about Catsimatidis's development:
When times were good, he had been planning to build four buildings on this stretch. Now, however, he's just putting up one smallish one; ... he's planning on putting in a 12,000-square-foot supermarket below grade. ... That'll make it a little harder to argue that Admirals Row needs to be demolished to make way for a supermarket, won't it?

Indeed. In the comments, David from Third and Bond (who identified himself as in favor of the supermarket project) wrote, "As the interlocutor with Mr. Catsimatidis, I heard him say clearly that there were 2 types of supermarkets, the 10-12K supermarket for residents within a 4-5 block walking radius and 20-25K+ supermarkets that were more of a destination." Mr. Brownstoner responded, "Taking that logic a step further...the Myrtle Market would cover Ingersoll and Whitman and then you could build another 10-12K sf market at the navy yard for farragut; with a market that size, as opposed to a big destination market, surely it would be possible to save most if not all of the admirals row houses...right?"

With a little help from Catsimatidis and David, Mr. B put his finger on the key to this and any other fight where supermarket developers try to argue that they have to build lots of parking to feed the poor: in the walkable sections of New York City, all you need is a 12,000 square foot supermarket to serve residents within a 4-5 block radius. "Destination supermarkets" are only necessary to increase the developer profits, not to bring quality food to anyone.

I would argue that parking-oriented destination supermarkets are especially bad for walkable neighborhoods, because they encourage people to drive to them. I've been told by several acquaintances, and I've read on other people's blogs, that they bought cars in order to "save money" by driving to Fairway or Trader Joe's or Costco for groceries. Whether or not they're actually saving money, they're taking away their business from the walkable and transit-oriented shops and giving it to big-box stores. They're also clogging our streets with more unnecessary cars. We should not be subsidizing that, and we should not destroy our heritage for it.

Of course some people will want to go a little further afield for special foods. But they don't need to drive. One time I lived in a poor neighborhood where the supermarkets had a limited selection. I took the subway down to the Sloan's on 55th and Eighth every couple of weeks. Thank you, Mr. Catsimatidis!

Here's a good example of a destination supermarket: The new Trader Joe's on Atlantic and Court is walking distance from many of the neighborhoods targeted by the Navy Yard store, and a short bus ride from most of the rest. And it's been selling out of cereal, with no parking. Need I say more?


nathan_h said...

People triple-park to shop at that Trader Joe's, not that it affects me very much other than breathing their exhaust while they idle for 15 minutes minimum. There are at least 4 bicycle racks on that block, all heavily used. I guess it's a model of how things will work out even with a bad street design, but if Court got the complete-street redesign it's screaming for including shoupian parking, it would be a knockout.

Jonathan said...

Thoughtful article. I tried that rationalization, about driving to the supermarket to buy bulk groceries, but realized that I didn't want to have the precious space in my small apartment consumed by bags and boxes of excess food bought on "sale." So I bike to the Fairway for dense foods like apples, shallots, and coffee beans, and I shop my local market for bulkier goods like bananas, kitty litter, and beer. Maybe I spend an extra dollar or two by foregoing bargains, but I save both space in the apartment and time spent on destination shopping.

George K said...

Just one comment: Looking at the Brooklyn bus map, it appears that those people who they are trying to encourage to drive to the supermarket can take a relatively easy bus ride to the supermarket.
There are 3 bus routes that directly serve the property: The B57, B62, and B69. The B57 can serve people living near the Flushing Avenue, as well as Court/Smith Streets corridor, the B62 can serve people who live in Clinton Hill, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint, and the B69 can serve the people who live in Prospect Heights and Park Slope. The only problem is that the B62 is the only frequent route, and the B69 has no weekend service (which can be restored if the supermarket proves to attract enough riders to the route).