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Same old story?
Ward 8 still awaits promised supermarket
(Published February 21, 2005)

By JEFFREY BEHRENS
Staff Writer

The D.C. government is "closer than ever" to signing a lease with a major chain supermarket to open a new store east of the Anacostia River, according to a Williams administration spokesman.

The store will be "one of the larger chain stores," said Chris Bender, communications director for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, though he declined to discuss details.

Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a self-described "neighborhood lobbyist" who has worked to open a store in Ward 8 since the last Safeway supermarket closed there in 1998, is among residents who view such pronouncements from the city government with skepticism.

City officials have not pursued negotiations to open a new store in the ward aggressively enough, Kinlow said, even after Mayor Anthony A. Williams promised in March 2000 during his first State of the District address to break ground for two new supermarkets east of the river by the end of that year.

Kinlow and other residents of Ward 7 and Ward 8 are still waiting.

"You can go back four years and see the same thing," Kinlow said. "Every year there's a press release with a new date."

Negotiations between the D.C. government and Giant Food Inc. have proceeded for nearly five years, when the company said it would build a store east of the river at East Capitol Street and Southern Avenue SE in Ward 7, The Common Denominator reported in August 2000. The company currently is building a new store in Columbia Heights at 14th Street and Park Road NW to replace an older, nearby store. Giant remains interested in building a store at the former Camp Simms site on Alabama Avenue SE in Ward 8, said Barry Scher, the grocery chain's communications director.

Safeway, the grocery chain that dominates the District with 15 stores, currently operates the only chain supermarkets located east of the Anacostia River. Safeway has a store at the River Park shopping center near Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE and one at Good Hope Marketplace on Alabama Avenue SE at Naylor and Good Hope roads. Both are in Ward 7.

Vincent C. Gray, who took office in January as Ward 7's new city councilman, said his ward suffers from an across-the-board lack of commercial development.

"There are some lingering perceptions about Ward 7," Gray said, and those misperceptions about crime and the area's demographics might account for grocery companies' reluctance to expand east of the Anacostia.

"It doesn't stop with grocery stores, either," he said. "It's really more symptomatic of a larger problem."

Most residents of densely populated Ward 8, currently served by no major supermarket, travel several miles to chain stores in Prince George's County, Md., or other parts of the District for groceries or rely on a handful of small, independent stores that generally offer fewer items at often higher prices.

"The residents of that part of town are having to leave their neighborhood to shop," Bender acknowledged.

Kinlow, who worked to start Ward 8's Community Harvest farmers market in 1998 after the last of the area's supermarkets closed, says the lack of progress in opening a store is due to the lack of an accountability mechanism in the mayor's office "80 percent" of the problem, he said and a city government that has been sluggish in providing economic incentives to open groceries in the wards.

Kinlow said the mayor's office "said they were going to be working on getting a grocery store, [but] there was no political pressure applied to the mayor," by either the people, who were largely kept in the dark about the city's progress in opening a store, or by former Ward 8 Councilwoman Sandy Allen.

"The community never had the opportunity to get both of them on stage," Kinlow said.

Allen was replaced in January as Ward 8 council representative by former mayor Marion Barry, which Kinlow sees as an opportunity to reopen talks about opening grocery stores in the ward. Barry did not respond to The Common Denominator's phone calls to discuss the supermarket situation in his ward.

Safeway defends its October 1998 closing of Ward 8's last full-service supermarket, one of the company's smaller stores that was landlocked on Milwaukee Place SE, near St. Elizabeth's Hospital. The former store has since been converted into a public charter school.

"We do better than most people, frankly," said Craig Muckle, Safeway public affairs manager.

While his company has closed several of its smaller stores over the past decade, Muckle said company officials have done so as part of a larger effort to shift to the "superstore" approach, and that Safeway now builds only stores to accommodate a larger number of customers.

Muckle said that if Safeway were to open more stores east of the river, it would be "cannibalizing what we already have."

But studies commissioned by the D.C. Office of Planning and Development suggest that, based on population and other statistics, several more grocery stores could flourish east of the Anacostia River.

"The city has estimated that Ward 8 could support additional supermarkets in or near the following neighborhoods: Barry Farm and Buena Vista; Congress Heights, Shipley Terrace and Douglass; Washington Highlands; and Bellevue," according to the D.C. Comprehensive Plan, which was last updated in 1999. Since that time, home ownership in that area has increased, which Bender said should provide added incentive for grocery companies to open a store there.

"The first thing grocery stores look for is a residential base," he said. "Before we could get a grocery store, we had to get housing online."

Bender said the previously low homeownership levels, particularly in Ward 8, suggested to grocers a transient population and a potential lack of profitability.

"I think we have a very stable population," said Councilman Gray, D-Ward 7. "Does it mean they don't want to deal with people in public housing?"

Representatives from both Giant and Safeway said that housing statistics were among a range of factors in deciding where to open a new store.

"We look at demographics of the proposed site ... competition, government statistics," said Giant Food's Scher. "We look at everything you can possibly think of."

Bender said incentives provided by the city, which can include invoking a law passed in June 2000 exempting supermarket developers from 10 years of property taxes and sales tax for purchasing construction equipment, were designed to attract chain grocery stores to anchor large developments.

"The first thing you need is a chain grocer," he said.

But Kinlow said, "they don't." He advocates expanding incentives to include smaller and independent grocers, saying the city tends to court only corporate chain grocers because they can use pre-existing relationships to "leverage situations."

Muckle said Safeway stores "have not typically sought out incentives," because the benefits of doing so do not outweigh what they see as a risk in opening a store in a potentially unprofitable area. Incentives are only available to openings in areas where grocery stores are needed most.

"We try to assess need based on what neighborhoods need and what neighborhoods want," Bender said.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator