Making Grocers More Appetizing to Developers

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg's office announced an initiative to encourage developers to include grocery stores in new projects. Nevin Cohen, whose research focuses on urban food system, reviews the plan.
Photo: Nevin Cohen

On May 16th, New York City unveiled a new initiative, Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH), which combines zoning changes and some financial incentives to make it less costly for developers to include supermarkets in their projects, and to allow the construction of supermarkets in light manufacturing districts without a special permit.

The initiative applies to four areas of the city with the least access to healthy, fresh food: the South Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Central Brooklyn, and Downtown Jamaica. The Bloomberg administration hopes the rezoning will stimulate the growth of supermarkets in these neighborhoods, and in so doing, provide more equitable access to food, promote healthier eating, and reduce the incidence of diet-related diseases.

The proposed zoning incentives will be reviewed by all affected community boards, each borough board, and the Borough Presidents. Once these community and borough reviews are complete, the City Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal before it is voted on by the City Council.

The Underlying Problem

A growing body of evidence suggests that the location and types of food establishments in a community affects the eating habits of its residents, with significant nutrition-related health consequences. Simply put, having a supermarket nearby makes it easier to buy healthy foods such as fresh produce (Zenk et al., 2005).

Compared to more affluent neighborhoods, however, communities with lower socioeconomic status have been shown to have fewer large supermarkets (Morland et al., 2002; Moore and Roux, 2006; Powell et al., 2007), less access to healthy foods (Baker, et al., 2006), and greater distances between residents and the nearest major food store (Zenk et al., 2005). Instead, low-income communities typically have a higher proportion of small convenience stores, bodegas, and liquor stores to full-service groceries and large supermarkets. Though some low-income neighborhoods have specialty grocers supplying high quality food at an affordable price, in many communities, small shops and bodegas generally have fewer healthy options and less fresh produce than larger grocery stores and supermarkets located in higher-income neighborhoods (Graham, et al., 2006).

In New York, like many large cities, the disparities in food access based on income, race and ethnicity are substantial. In East and Central Harlem, for example, bodegas are more abundant and prevalent than supermarkets, in sharp contrast to affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side where high quality food is readily available. Indeed, a recent study by the Department of City Planning (DCP, 2008) that underpins the current zoning proposal found that many of the city's low-income neighborhoods lack a sufficient number of grocery stores and supermarkets.

Proposed Policies

The proposed zoning changes allow developers in the four target communities to build larger buildings than otherwise permitted under the existing zoning if they include a neighborhood grocery store on the ground floor. The bonus to the developer is one additional square foot of residential floor area for each square foot of grocery store, up to a maximum of 20,000 additional square feet.

The food retailer must have at least 6,000 square feet of selling area for general food and nonfood grocery products, with at least half the square footage devoted to the sale of general food products intended for home preparation and consumption, and 30% of the area for perishable food, with at least 500 square feet for the sale of fresh produce. For buildings that take advantage of this new zoning provision, the City Planning Commission may allow the developer to increase the maximum building height by 15 feet to accommodate the additional floor area.

The proposed zoning change also reduces the burden of providing parking spaces as an additional incentive. In districts that permit residential buildings with ground floor retail, only very large stores (over 40,000 square feet) would be required to provide parking, while in other commercial and light manufacturing districts, smaller stores would be exempted from providing any parking.

To encourage grocery store development in areas zoned for light manufacturing use (M-1 districts), the proposed zoning would allow large food stores to be permitted as-of-right. In New York, where the uniform land use review process (ULURP) and environmental reviews can drag on for many months, even for relatively uncontroversial projects, as-of-right development can save a developer time and money.

In addition to these zoning changes, the City has assembled incentives for grocers to build, renovate, and equip their stores in low-income neighborhoods. These include real estate tax abatements, mortgage recording tax waivers, sales tax exemptions, and a variety of existing financial incentive programs that grocery store owners can take advantage of.

Conclusion

This proposal is certainly worth adopting. Providing a density bonus to developers who include grocery stores in their buildings, easing parking requirements, and allowing supermarkets in light manufacturing districts will provide incentives for developers to incorporate food retailers in new construction and in manufacturing areas, and therefore will make it simpler for these businesses to locate in communities currently lacking fresh, healthy food. But it is not clear to what extent these zoning changes will significantly increase food access. Supermarkets locate their stores based on their anticipated customer traffic, revenue projections, and financial risks (Winne, 2008). Having the right zoning in place is only one variable in a much more complex equation.

The current city administration has not been timid about wielding its power to regulate and issue permits -- and now zone -- to improve nutrition and increase access to healthy food. Over the past few years, New York banned trans fats, required chain restaurants to post calorie information, created 1,000 licenses for mobile food vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables in poor neighborhoods, funded electronic benefits terminals so food stamp recipients could shop at farmers markets, and added locally-sourced apples to the school lunch program.

But these bold initiatives, while important steps, need to be part of a much broader food planning effort. The City's major sustainable planning initiative, encapsulated in PlaNYC 2030, offers a prescription for providing housing, energy, water, open space, and transportation infrastructure to a future city with a million more residents. Yet the plan is silent on the question of how we will feed the current and future population sustainably in 2030.

The community boards, Borough Presidents, and City Council should enact the proposed FRESH zoning changes, but should insist on a revision to PlaNYC 2030 that addresses broader issues, such as how to improve transportation to make the movement of food from surrounding farms more efficient and sustainable, steps to develop a wholesale farmers market to make selling local food to restaurants and supermarkets logistically feasible, and a plan to carve out sufficient space for urban and suburban farms, processing facilities, and markets.

Nearly a decade ago, planning professors Kami Pothukuchi and Jerome Kaufman observed that the food system is "a stranger to the planning field," conspicuously absent from city plans, the planning literature, the classrooms of planning schools (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 2000). Fortunately, the past decade has seen significant growth in food system planning. It is time for New York City to take the lead by developing a comprehensive foodshed assessment and plan for the city and surrounding region.


Nevin Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Urban Environmental Studies at The New School. His research and teaching focuses on urban food systems.

References

Baker, EA, M. Schootman, E. Barnidge, and C. Kelly. 2006. The role of race and poverty in access to foods that enable individuals to adhere to dietary guidelines. Preventing Chronic Disease 3, (3) (07/01): A76.

Brown, Elliot. 2009. Amanda Burden: Supermarket Zoning Plan Weeks Away. The New York Observer. April 23, 2009. Accessed at http://www.observer.com/2009/real-estate/amanda-burden-supermarket-zoning-plan-weeks-away

Department of City Planning (DCP). 2008. Going to Market: New York City's Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage. Accessed April 24, 2009 at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/supermarket/presentation.shtml

Graham R., Kaufman L., Novoa Z., Karpati A. Eating in, eating out, eating well: Access to healthy food in North and Central Brooklyn. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2006.

Moore, LV, and A. Diez Roux. 2006. Associations of neighborhood characteristics with the location and type of food stores. American Journal of Public Health (01/01).

Morland, K., S. Wing, A. Diez Roux, and C. Poole. 2002. Neighborhood characteristics associated with the location of food stores and food service places. American Journal of Preventive Medicine (01/01).

Pothukuchi, K. and Kaufman, J. L. 2000. The Food System: A stranger to the planning field. Journal of the American Planning Association. 66, 2: 113.

Powell, LM, S. Slater, D. Mirtcheva, Y. Bao, and FJ Chaloupka. 2007. Food store availability and neighborhood characteristics in the united states. Preventive Medicine 44, (3) (03/01): 189-95.

Winne, M. 2008. Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Boston: Beacon Press.

Zenk, SN, AJ Schulz, T. Hollis-Neely, and RT Campbell. 2005. Fruit and vegetable intake in African Americans income and store characteristics. American Journal of Preventive Medicine (01/01).


Related Links

Food Retail Expansion to Support Health initiative

FRESH zoning changes and public review process

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