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Zoning Out Junk Food
Planners offer FAR bonus for fresh produce

About a year ago, before the construction boom faded, the Department of City Planning launched a project to boost grocery-store development in places with poor access to healthy food. The idea is that millions of New Yorkers live in neighborhoods with a dearth of grocery stores, and the costs to public health mount when a lack of fresh produce plays out in high rates of obesity and diabetes.

“We found that in some neighborhoods, people were spending their entire food budget at Duane continued on page 3 Zoning Out Junk Food continued from
front page  Reade,” said Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden at a New York University forum on April 22, “and that means soda and chips.”

To combat both illness and economic waste, the city has unveiled a new zoning strategy: It will encourage landlords to rent to supermarkets or grocery stores by deducting the square footage of such stores from buildings’ allowable size, or floor-area ratio (FAR). That incentive should make grocery stores increasingly attractive tenants for developers looking to increase their return-on-investment.

Targeting diverse or high-growth areas like Washington Heights, Sunset Park, and Bushwick, the initiative aims to create retail spaces big enough to refrigerate, display, and sell a variety of fresh produce. Its goals include doubling the average square footage of grocery retail per 10,000 people in a neighborhood, from its current level of 15,000 square feet to a minimum of 30,000 square feet. Only two Manhattan districts on the West Side currently meet that standard.

While the city’s plans are nascent, two recent rezonings in Long Island City and Hunts Point suggest a strategic blueprint for encouraging grocery stores. “Supermarkets are now permitted as-of-right, and the parking requirement is reduced for their use,” according to a department summary of those rezonings. Planners have also cut supermarkets a break on parking requirements in the new zoning for St. George on Staten Island.

Improving public health would be a major achievement for the department, but there are other benefits to be gained by promoting fresh produce. Expanding supermarkets has been seen as a way to drive economic growth at a time of stagnant new development. And a Planning Commission report on the matter last year noted that an aggressive campaign to locate supermarkets in underserved areas could keep up to $1 billion from seeping to suburban vendors as residents turn elsewhere to stock the pantry.

In her recent speech, Burden admitted that zoning can encourage—not mandate—a shift in retail strategy. She suggested, however, that the dropoff in development has given her commission a chance to “make ourselves stop and reflect” on changes that would shore up the city for generations. In that light, the supermarket initiative seems likely to spur development when lending picks up speed, while helping New Yorkers eat healthy, too.

Alec Appelbaum