Locals Rally to Extend Supermarket’s Shelf Life
BY YANNIC RACK | Loyal customers of an Associated supermarket — located at W. 14th St. and Eighth Ave. for almost three decades — took their fight to save the beloved neighborhood store to the Midtown headquarters of Pan Am Equities last week, urging the landlord to rethink an astronomical rent increase that will likely force the market to close its doors in May.
Supported by local elected officials and representatives from other neighborhoods across the city, Chelsea and West Village residents rallied on the sidewalk in front of the company’s Midtown headquarters (18 E. 50th St., btw. Fifth & Madison Aves.), on Fri., Mar. 18.
“This is just a continuation of us saying, ‘You’re not going to take an essential community service away from our neighborhood just because of greed.’ And we’re going to keep up the fight,” said City Councilmember Corey Johnson, who organized the rally.
“It’s our hope that, in this day and age, a very wealthy real estate company will hopefully do what’s right,” Johnson told the protesters, “and not just try to make a little extra money on the backs of so many people who rely on this supermarket — day in and day out — for fresh fruits and vegetables, and for affordable groceries.”
Although the crowd that made the 20-minute trip to Midtown was decidedly smaller than the 100-plus assemblage that packed the sidewalk outside of the store’s W. 14th St. location five days earlier, passions nonetheless ran high during the one-hour protest.
“It’s the destruction of small businesses,” proclaimed Charles Bayor, a member of Community Board 4 and a resident of Penn South, who voiced his disapproval with a bright red sign that read “Don’t Close Our Supermarket.”
Bayor, like many patrons of the store, said he regularly shops at the Associated because of its reasonable prices.
“We’re losing all our stores that are affordable,” he said. “It’ll be very hard to exist in a neighborhood where everything is so expensive.”
Francine Haselkorn, standing next to Bayor with a sign that read “Save NYC!,” agreed.
“This is an essential issue,” said the Hell’s Kitchen resident. “It represents another nail in the coffin of what a middle class person can do in New York City.”
One of the owners of the shop, which opened at its current spot between Seventh and Eighth Aves. in 1989, told Chelsea Now last week that the landlord is demanding a monthly rent of more than $100,000, up from the current rate of $32,000.
But many locals say they have come to depend on the store, as a place where they can buy fresh produce, and even have their food delivered for free within a 10-block radius — an essential service for senior and disabled residents of the area.
“A lot of middle-income folks, low-income families won’t have a place to buy fruits and vegetables anymore,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, who marched together with the residents. “[Pan Am] won’t even come to the table and negotiate, and that’s what irks me and so many members of our community. Try to strike a fair deal. Don’t price a long-standing business out of our community. That’s not right.
“It’s important that the community comes out, stands in front of their office, and lets the landlord know that it is not going to take this sitting down,” he added.
The picketers, holding up colorful signs and marching in a circle, gave their grievances vocal expression with chants that included “Feed, not greed,” “Save our supermarket,” “Negotiate the real estate” and “Shame on you, Pan Am.”
Despite much high-profile shaming ever since the rent increase became public knowledge, Pan Am Equities has not responded to inquiries from this publication, or calls from elected officials — prompting Johnson to inquire about a face-to-face in the lobby of the office building, where he was told by a receptionist that nobody was interested in engaging the protesters or the councilmember.
“They were instructed not to talk to us,” Johnson told the crowd outside. “That means they’re already listening,” shouted one woman hopefully.
Miguel Acevedo, who lives at the Fulton Houses public housing development and heads the tenant association there, said the closure would have far-ranging impacts on the entire neighborhood.
“That Associated and the Western Beef on West 16th Street are the only supermarkets that are affordable in the community,” he said. “If we lose Associated, Western Beef will have the opportunity to raise their prices — so it’s going to really have an effect on the Chelsea community.”
Acevedo, who has lived in one of the development’s nearly 1,000 apartments for all his life, remembered when Western Beef was still located on W. 14th St. and eventually forced out by a rent increase as well — which led to elected officials stepping in and securing a replacement space two blocks north, albeit one half the size of the original store.
“If you take Associated away, it will definitely displace low-income tenants in our community,” he said. “We’re just going to get more Stella McCartney’s and Apple stores; that’s what they’ll probably put in there.”
Acevedo said the only real solution was to bring legislation for a right to commercial lease renewal to a vote in the City Council, where such a bill — the Small Business Jobs Survival Act — has been stalled for years.
Johnson, who is a sponsor of the Act, said there were doubts about the legality of the bill in its current form, but added that he was committed to resolving the issue.
“Commercial rent control existed in New York City for many, many years. It was abolished decades ago, and I think given the crisis we’re seeing facing small businesses in the city, we have to bring some type of rent control or mediation back, so that small businesses can actually survive and not have their leases doubled, tripled, quadrupled, only to be driven out,” he said.
“The underlying problem is, if you walk through Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen — really any neighborhood in Manhattan and the rest of the city — you will see not dozens of empty storefronts, but hundreds of empty storefronts. We’re losing the character of our city.”
Johnson added that, in the meantime, he would look for a way to keep the Associated in the neighborhood, although there weren’t many options if the landlord continued to refuse an open discussion.
“I’m not 100 percent optimistic, but hopefully they’ll do the right thing,” he said.
Acevedo warned that if nothing was done soon, the future looked dire.
“The mom-and-pop stores, every week you see a different one closing down,” he said. “If you take the supermarkets away, it will become impossible to live in Chelsea.”