Rebuilding Bradhurst has always been a contentious business, so no one expected the development of the neighborhood’s first major supermarket in years to go forward without a fight.
After becoming a symbol of urban decay in the 1970s, the section of Central Harlem that stretches from about 140th Street and Edgecombe and Bradhurst avenues to 155th Street has been coming back. Over the last 10 years, the neighborhood has seen the rehabilitation of over 1,000 units of housing, commercial revitalization of 145th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and the renovation of Jackie Robinson Park.
No one can speak of this resurgence without crediting the central role played by Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI). A coalition of 60 churches and mosques created in 1986, the group has been the primary movers of the Bradhurst Redevelopment Plan, which has spearheaded much of the progress. HCCI, which wrested its initial funding from the Koch administration and was heartily supported by Mayor Dinkins, stands out as the only large-scale black-run low-income housing developer in that part of Harlem.
HCCI also happens to have control over one-square block of city-owned land at the corner of 145th Street and Bradhurst Avenue. Officials plan to devel-op into a supermarket with housing above it. And that has put them at the center of a growing neighborhood food fight.
Last year, HCCI began work on plans to build a small supermarket run by the Krasdale chain, which already operates a number of Bravo and C-Town markets in northern Manhattan. The idea was to construct a building that would accommodate the market as well as a string of smaller stores to be filled by local entrepreneurs.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the city put forth a proposal last year to rezone the site to accommodate the construction of a much larger supermarket–probably a Pathmark, the only chain with an established track record of building mega-markets in inner-city neighborhoods. On March 5, in what could be the first step in taking the site out of HCCI’s hands, the City Planning Commission gave the rezoning its thumbs-up.
Unlike the battle over the development of the Pathmark on 125th Street in East Harlem, the debate that has divided Bradhurst is not about whether to have a supermarket–but what size it will be and who will get to control it.
HCCI and its CEO, Reverend Preston Washington, are leading the opposition to the rezoning plan. Washington, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, maintains the small market plan is the key to Bradhurst being able to control its redevelopment and how the community will look in the future.
“A large market on 145th would snarl the economic development that is already underway,” he says. “We planned to have a number of smaller stores on that site and a small supermarket. That fits into the neighborhood, not a megastore.”
Community Board 10, which voted against the rezoning scheme in December, agrees with HCCI. “We want to develop a more entrepreneurial focus within the community. The commercial spaces shouldn’t be taken up by huge stores,” says Willy Walker, the board’s chair.
But the groups who support the Pathmark idea are also gearing up to make their case. Yuien Chin, co-chair of the West Harlem Community Preservation Organization, says price and convenience for local shoppers should outweigh what they consider to be vaguer concerns about community control. The Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association and some members of Community Board 9, which contains parts of Bradhurst, are supporting Chin’s position.
“This neighborhood can use a large supermarket,” she says. “Who is really being served [by the small market]? If it’s the community that we want to serve, why hasn’t there really been an investigation into all of the options and a survey of the residents to see what they want?”
Pamela Fairclough of the Community Food Resource Center, who has been studying the placement of supermarkets and their use by low-income communities, also thinks this is a perfect site for a large supermarket. “It is rare that this [quantity of land is available in Manhattan. And to have it right in a neighborhood that historically has not had its supermarket needs met makes it an opportunity not to be passed up.”
According to a study done by CFRC, $50 million food dollars in the Bradhurst area are lost to Westchester and New Jersey because of the dearth of adequate markets in Harlem. The group estimates $117 million in grocery buying power exists in the 70,000 households in the area–while only $47 million of that sum is currently recaptured by community merchants. Fairclough also claims that markets over 30,000 square feet typically offer more than three times as many items as Krasdale-scale markets.
That experience is echoed in other studies. Recent findings by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs showed that poor people pay 8.8 percent more for a typical food basket than their counterparts in middle-income neighborhoods. A report by Consumers Union in California showed that 92 percent of middle-income people traveled five minutes or less for shopping, while only 28 percent of low-income people could get their goods without a major trek. The majority had to travel more than 15 minutes to get to a store.
Many in Harlem know this all too well. “I shop in New Jersey,” said Monique Washington, a mother of three. “I would like a large market in my neighborhood. I come to Fairway [a 35,000 square-foot store on 133rd St. near the Henry Hudson Parkway] but they don’t have everything and it has a bad traffic problem.”
But opponents of the Pathmark idea say large stores don’t necessarily mean low prices or quality.
“It’s up to the community to monitor any store that is in the neighborhood,” says Rev. Washington. His sentiments are echoed by Michael Adams, a local historian who wonders why this community needs superstores when other neighborhoods in Manhattan have high quality and low prices without large stores and the off-street parking that they require. “It’s analogous to those hideous malls in the suburbs that you don’t want to encourage in an urban setting.”
CB 10’s Willy Walker believes the sitting of mega-market would make middle-class residents less likely to buy the one-to-four-family homes being renovated across the street from the market site. “No one will buy a house right next to a huge market with noisy trucks, vermin, and a large number of cars all the time. It would destroy the efforts we have made over the last decade to improve this area.”
Chin and her allies say such arguments are a smoke screen. HCCI’s real agenda, she maintains, is all about the group’s determination to have control over the project–and to capture management fees that would inevitably flow from the development of the smaller retail spaces.
Rev. Washington admits he wants the fees but insists a smaller market is better. “We are under attack because we are the major players here,” he told City Limits. “[People outside the community] want to take that control away from us.
We are working for the empowerment of the community, and some people don’t want that.. We should have control and ownership of the development in our community as well as the revenue projects generate.”
Whether Washington gets his way is now up to the City Council. The council’s permits committee–chaired by Harlem councilwoman C. Virginia Fields, who reportedly favors the re-zoning proposal–is scheduled to hold hearings on April 8.
April Tyler is a Democratic district leader in Harlem.