Harlem Choice: Fresh Lettuce or 'Fair' Zoning

THE highlight of Gladys Andrickson's day is her trip to Fairway, the warehouse version of a chic Upper West Side food store that recently moved to Harlem.

A cornucopia of fresh produce, quality meats, and handmade baked goods, the 35,000-square-foot outlet is an oddity in this grim stretch of city more familiar with shuttered meat-packing plants and boarded-up buildings.

''It's a blessing,'' says Ms. Andrickson, a 27-year Harlem resident. ''Every day I go, every day. On Saturdays, I bring my mother, my aunt, my friends. In my neighborhood, the fruit is very ugly. Prices are so high.''

The Fairway store represents something Harlem residents haven't had in decades: quality food and services at discount prices. But in spite of the store's popularity, the city of New York is threatening to limit its operations, saying it is violating a zoning code for industrial areas that allows warehouses, but not large retail stores.

To comply, Fairway must reduce its retail activity by, for example, halving the store - or stop selling to the public.

At the heart of the impasse is an issue that cities across the country are facing: What is to be done with the land and buildings left empty by departing manufacturing plants, and how should the neighborhoods left behind be reinvigorated?

''Retail is economic salvation,'' says Daniel Broe, a Loehman College urban geography professor who has studied the effect of allowing superstores in manufacturing zones. ''The choice today is between retail and nothing. It is not between retail and manufacturing. Manufacturing is not coming back.''

Owners of chain stores have become interested in filling the manufacturing void in part because communities such as Harlem represent some of the last untapped frontiers for them. The megastores that have sprung up in the suburbs are nearing their saturation point there.

But in New York, one of the strictest industrial zoning laws in the country has kept retailers from investing in many communities. The law, passed 20 years ago to keep manufacturers from fleeing the city, prohibits commercial retailers from setting up shop in industrial zones unless applicants get a special permit - a lengthy, costly process fraught with uncertainty. Over the past several years, experts say, the city has lost an average of $3.1 million dollars in retail spending annually.

''There are some who don't care about the retail economy in the city,'' says Joseph Rose, chairman of the New York City Planning Commission. ''And the city has paid a very high price for it.''

After years of inaction, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed last year that retailers be allowed to occupy up to 200,000 square feet in manufacturing zones in areas where land is cheap.

But here and in many big cities, the process of translating often out-of-date land-use regulations into more flexible laws has been contentious and divisive.

It is fought bitterly by small-business owners who say chain stores will squash the independently owned supermarkets that have traditionally been the economic backbone of minority communities. Rezoning is also looked upon cautiously by those who hope to lure emerging industries into the city and are concerned that huge discount stores might bring unwanted traffic and other problems.

''If I'm unemployed, don't give me place where I can spend my money, give me a place where I can produce things that can be useful to society,'' says Lionel McIntyre, director of the urban planning graduate program at Columbia University in New York.

For many, though, the time when a manufacturing plant could keep a community economically afloat has passed. ''Fairway is clearly violating the law,'' says Mr. Rose. ''But the law doesn't make any sense. This is a concrete example of something that everybody loves, and because it opened illegally, people are finally seeing what they could be deprived of.''

Simply having a Fairway is a matter of justice to many Harlem residents. Beginning in the 1960s, concerns about crime, high-security costs, and redlining drove both supermarkets and a middle-class generation out of Harlem. A recent study showed that in Harlem, where unemployment hovers at around 18 percent, residents pay more for food that is of substandard quality.

In addition to the service it provides, Fairway has also created 170 jobs, 120 of which have been filled by neighborhood residents. The store, it is hoped, will be the anchor for other development.

''Fairway is a brilliant example of what's possible for inner cities. Instead of having the worst of everything, they can have the best of everything,'' says Whitney Tilson, who heads the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a Boston-based nonprofit group aimed at boosting private efforts to revitalize inner cities.

''If Fairway gets nuked,'' she says, ''what kind of a message does it send the world about New York City as a place to do business?''

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