Thursday, September 24, 2009

A move to bring supermarkets to the inner-city

New York City has relaxed some regulations in the hopes of bringing more grocery stores that sell fresh food to the urban areas of the city. New York's planning commission passed the proposal that would give tax breaks and ease zoning rules.

From the New York Times, writer Diane Cardwell details the plan to bring fresh food to the inner-city.

Under a proposal the City Planning Commission unanimously approved on Wednesday, the city would offer zoning and tax incentives to spur the development of full-service grocery stores that devote a certain amount of space to fresh produce, meats, dairy and other perishables.

The plan — which has broad support among food policy experts, supermarket executives and City Council members, whose approval is needed — would permit developers to construct larger buildings than existing zoning would ordinarily allow, and give tax abatements and exemptions for approved stores in large swaths of northern Manhattan, central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, as well as downtown Jamaica in Queens.

“This is about being able to walk to get your groceries in those areas that are really, really underserved and basically have no place to buy fresh produce,” said Amanda M. Burden, the city planning commissioner. Residents in such areas, she said, have been spending “their grocery dollars at Duane Reade and CVS on chips and soda.”

The move comes as governments across the nation struggle to solve what public health advocates call an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Schools have banned sugary drinks; lawmakers have helped urban farms spread like crabgrass on undeveloped lots; and cities like Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., have limited the concentration of fast-food restaurants in low-income areas.

But the New York proposal, adapted from a Pennsylvania program that provides grants and loans for supermarket construction, is unusual because it employs a mix of zoning and financial incentives to attract, rather than repel, a narrowly defined type of commercial enterprise.

“It is exciting to see that City Planning is taking an initiative to address food because the planning profession has really ignored the food system for the past 100 years,” said Nevin Cohen, an assistant professor of urban studies at the New School, pointing out that the Bloomberg administration’s elaborate blueprint to guide future development, PlaNYC 2030, barely mentions food.

The new zoning would break down some barriers that grocery stores face, said Ben Thomases, the city’s food policy coordinator, including competition from drugstores and other retailers that have higher profit margins than supermarkets do and can pay higher rents.

Under the proposed rules, a residential building with a fresh-food store could be up to 20,000 square feet larger than would normally be allowed, enabling developers to make more money by building more apartments.

Smaller stores in certain commercial and manufacturing districts would be exempt from a requirement that they provide customer parking. And in manufacturing districts, developers could build stores of up to 30,000 square feet — the current limit is 10,000 — without going through the city’s laborious and expensive land-use review process.

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