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Giant plans to open Ward 7 supermarket

(Published August 14, 2000)


Staff Writer

Giant Food Inc. says it will build a new supermarket east of the Anacostia River as part of the city’s recently announced plan to redevelop the East Capitol Dwellings and Capitol View public housing developments near the Maryland border in Ward 7.

The new store is expected to be an anchor tenant of a planned 118,850-square-foot shopping center to be built on 10.4 acres abutting the Capitol Heights Metro station at East Capitol Street and Southern Avenue SE. Giant has signed onto the housing/retail project as a "financial partner," along with Bank of America and Fannie Mae, according to an Aug. 4 statement issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD made the announcement in conjunction with awarding the D.C. Housing Authority a $30.8 million HOPE VI revitalization grant for the project. The public housing authority plans to demolish 1,107 deteriorated apartments near the planned supermarket site and replace them with 555 new mixed-income homes, with 196 of the new units classified as rental public housing.

Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs for Landover-based Giant Food, said his company has submitted a letter of intent to the shopping center’s developer, Marvin Jawer, and has been looking to expand its presence in the District.

"Giant is always interested in developing additional stores in the District of Columbia to complement our four operating units at this point," he said.

Scher said that it is too early in the development process to discuss details about the anticipated size of the store or when it will be completed. Jawer was unavailable for comment on the project’s timetable.

This would be the first Giant store in the District to be located outside the city’s northwest quadrant. Safeway currently operates the only two supermarkets east of the Anacostia River, with both located in Ward 7.

Milton Bailey, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said the city is currently in negotiations with developers about building more supermarkets along the city’s under-served corridors and said he expects a supermarket to be built at the former Camp Simms site on Alabama Avenue SE in Ward 8.

"I think we’ve made substantial progress along those lines," Bailey said of the negotiations, although he declined to give details about which supermarket chain might move in and when development of the site might happen. Ward 8 currently has no supermarket.

The issue of food access has long been an important one for residents east of the Anacostia River. In this year’s State of the District address on March 6, Mayor Anthony A. Williams pledged to alleviate the dearth of supermarkets in the two east-of-the-river wards.

"By the time I give my next State of the District address, we will have broken ground on two additional supermarkets east of the river," he said.

While building two new supermarkets would double the number of existing supermarkets located east of the Anacostia River, it would return the city to essentially the same grocery-availability position that existed in that part of town a month before the mayor was elected in the fall of 1998. The city has lost two supermarkets east of the river since that time – one when Safeway closed its Milwaukee Place SE store in Ward 8 in October 1998 and the second when an independent supermarket went out of business last year on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, near Division Avenue in Ward 7’s Deanwood neighborhood.

In June the mayor and city council approved a new law that gives supermarket developers exemption from 10 years of property taxes, license fees and sales taxes on building materials. The bill was supported by the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a coalition of churches, and the advocacy group Food Access Is Right, a volunteer group trying to bring more supermarkets to under-served urban neighborhoods.

The goal of the new law is an obvious one — to lure supermarkets that have a large suburban presence like Giant and Shopper’s Food Warehouse into the city’s under-served areas. But opinions on how to best improve food access in these inner-city patches are varied and skepticism at how much progress the city can make remains strong among residents who say they’re used to empty promises from city officials.

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, called the District’s dearth of supermarkets "a travesty and a tragedy."

"It’s embarrassing to be the only ward in town without a grocery store," said Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a Ward 8 activist, who after his ward saw its last supermarket close up shop in 1998, worked to start a Saturday farmer’s market called the Community Harvest Farm Stand on Southern Avenue.

Bruce Ferguson, a retail analyst who has studied urban grocery stores, said the District’s plight is one common to many urban areas. "If you look around," he said, "central city neighborhoods often are under-served all across the country by retail, especially by grocery stores, but that’s not because there’s no demand."

The causes of what Ferguson calls "the urban grocery store gap" are particularly relevant to the District. Land parcels with enough retail space and parking for modern big-box style stores in cities are rare and more costly than in suburban locales. And he said it is often easy for a grocery chain to move out of downtown and not lose its inner-city clientele. "Grocery stores can relocate to the suburbs, and city people continue going there," he said.

For Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, the fact that numerous supermarkets just outside the District can lay claim to D.C. customers reflects the city’s lack of success in enticing businesses.

"You ask yourself why (supermarkets) are on that side of the street and not this side of the street," said Evans, referring to stores located just over the District line, such as the Giant Food store on Eastern Avenue in Prince George’s County, Md. "The answer is the city’s tax structure... The fact is, it’s economics."

Evans said he wants to do more to lure these stores back into the District. "It’s all about raising the competitiveness of the city," he said.

Safeway spokesman Gregory A. TenEych said his company’s stores need more square footage in order to make profits and compete against industry rivals.

"The hardest challenge right now to a store coming (into the District) is finding a size large enough to be competitive," he said.

TenEych was tight-lipped about where Safeway might put new stores, but did say there has been dialogue between the company and the mayor’s administration. "We have met with Mayor Williams and his economic development people, and he has been very open," he said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator