JP’s last supermarket war

April 29, 2011
By

John Ruch

Stop & Shop was a target, then a hit

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A giant corporate supermarket is moving into Jamaica Plain’s Latino neighborhood. Bodega owners are worried. Protestors wave signs and warn of the end of local Latino culture. Store supporters protest right back. Alternative proposals are promoted by local non-profits.

No, this is not a review of the ongoing controversy about Whole Foods Market moving into Hyde Square.

It is a snapshot from 1992, when similar controversy erupted over Stop & Shop moving into Jackson Square.

“There were people holding up signs in Spanish saying it wasn’t for the community, [that] we were outsiders,” said Bernie Doherty, a JP resident who was a member of the Stop & Shop development team, in a recent Gazette interview. He recalled claims that the supermarket would “destroy the Hispanic community and their bodegas.”

Stop & Shop turned out to be one of JP’s success stories. The bodegas stayed open, some doing better business than before. And the project provided a community benefits package—including local jobs and a $500,000 trust fund—that could be a model for a similar package that the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council intends to ask of Whole Foods.

“The whole concern about Stop & Shop being a bad thing for the neighborhood was not true,” said Mossik Hacobian, the former head of the non-profit developer Urban Edge, who was not involved in the project but followed it closely.

There are some big differences between then and now. Whole Foods is making a unilateral move into the neighborhood to replace another grocer, and has faced criticism for being a non-local chain store. Stop & Shop went up on a vacant lot in a community-based, city-reviewed project inspired by resident demands for more chain businesses, which were fleeing to the suburbs at the time. And gentrification of housing, a huge issue in the Whole Foods debate, did not apply to Stop & Shop, which sits alongside the Bromley-Heath public housing development.

But the similarities are big, too. A chain supermarket’s impact on Latino business and culture remains a core issue—though today’s concerns about local bodegas appear to come more from activists than from the businesses themselves. In the 1990s, there was specific worry about Stop & Shop’s effect on Hi-Lo Market, the Latino-centric grocer that Whole Foods is controversially replacing. And local jobs and traffic impacts were concerns then and now. The debate was sometime heated, as the Gazette reported at the time and several key players recalled in recent interviews.

Some of those players are the same in both controversies. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), a non-profit developer and community organizer, was a limited partner in the Stop & Shop project. This year, the JPNDC held the first community meeting about Whole Foods.

Now the JPNDC is also talking about bringing another new grocer into its own Hyde Square retail space—a move that is being opposed by local bodega owners fearful of their business.

“This was the first major supermarket to come back in 15 years in the city,” said JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal, describing Stop & Shop as a big score. “It shows you how much has changed…The idea that a Whole Foods would move into the Hyde/Jackson neighborhood 15 years ago would have been very unlikely.”

Dave Kenyon, a board member of the community trust fund that came out of the project, said Stop & Shop was the “forerunner” of Whole Foods and other urban supermarkets.

“The reason Stop & Shop is doing so well is the reason Whole Foods is coming in,” he said.

The chain store demand
Grocery shopping was a very different thing in the JP of the early ’90s. Major supermarkets had abandoned Boston for rich suburbs years before, including a former Stop & Shop at Centre and Walden streets. For thousands of Jackson Square residents, the closest large markets were Hyde Square’s Hi-Lo and Flanagan’s (now a CVS Pharmacy) in Canary Square, both about a half-mile away.

The real estate market was different, too. The future site of Stop & Shop was a polluted 5-acre field containing the ruins of an abandoned shoe factory that had burned down 15 years earlier.

The Stop & Shop project was the brainchild of developer Mordechai Levin, who spoke to the Gazette about its history last month but declined to comment on the record.

In the early 1990s, Levin had just completed JP Plaza, the strip mall next to the Stop & Shop site. In the planning process for the mall, local residents requested three types of corporate chain businesses: a pharmacy, a bank and a supermarket. Levin brought the first two into JP Plaza: a Rite-Aid and a BayBank.

Determined to build a supermarket as well, Levin made a deal with a chain called Purity Supreme—which merged with Stop & Shop during the planning—and put in a bid on the city-owned wasteland. The plan also included a new building for the Martha Eliot Health Center, which was inside Bromley-Heath at the time. Levin later bolstered community support by adding the JPNDC and the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation (TMC) as limited partners.

With city and community support, the Stop & Shop appeared headed for quick approval.

The controversy
But bodega owners, backed by such organizations as the Hyde Square Business Association, began expressing fears about the supermarket underselling their products.

“There was a lot of concern coming out of bodegas,” said TMC deputy director David Worrell.

Those concerns grew into a heated debate on the potential impact on Latino culture. Oficina Hispana de la Comunidad, a now-defunct, JP-based adult education non-profit focused on the Latino community, made an alternative proposal for a job-training facility on the Stop & Shop site—and organized vocal opposition to the supermarket.

At community meetings, Oficina Hispana supporters cheered the organization’s plans and displayed signs protesting the supermarket. The Gazette’s opinion pages filled with letters from opponents and supporters.

A supermarket “will undermine the flavor and color of the community,” one JP resident told the Gazette at the time. “The new supermarket is not going to hurt anybody. It’s going to bring business to the area,” said a local business employee.

Today’s Whole Foods protests are “very similar to what was happening back then,” said Kenyon, who was BayBank’s local community outreach official at the time.

Then and now, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) took a lead role in reviewing the supermarket plan, forming a special committee and complaining about tenants being selected prior to community input. Today, the JPNC is opposing Whole Foods while seeking to negotiate with it. Back then, the JPNC ended up applauding the Stop & Shop redevelopment, with the council’s chair describing the public process as “perfect.”

Solutions
Levin’s team had a couple of responses to concerns about the supermarket.

Doherty visited bodegas and mom-and-pop stores in East Boston, where a relatively large chain grocery store had recently opened. The store owners reported that business stayed the same or grew, apparently because shoppers used the larger market for bulk groceries and the smaller stores for quick or specialty purchases. Doherty’s report on those interviews helped to quell some of the local business concerns.

“The Stop & Shop is pretty generic,” Doherty said. “A lot of these little bodegas and grocery stores, they cater to a much more ethnic or specific niche of the community.”

Levin also agreed to establish a half-million-dollar trust fund to give grants to local causes. A certain portion of the money was dedicated to supporting local businesses if the Stop & Shop harmed them. But it was never needed.

“If they could show us they had been impacted by the supermarket, we would give them a grant to help them compete. And nobody applied for anything,” said Kenyon, the fund’s treasurer.

The fund still exists and supports various local causes, though this may be its last year of operation, as the Gazette previously reported.

“I think what businesses thought was going to happen did not happen,” said Worrell. “There was no mass shutdown of businesses. A lot of them are still here.”

Oficina Hispana’s proposal turned out to be infeasible. At the last minute, the non-profit added the supermarket to its plan, despite all of its previous protests and the fact that only Levin’s team had an actual deal with the grocer. Oficina Hispana ceased to operate as an independent organization several years ago and formally dissolved earlier this year, according to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office.

Parking and traffic was a significant issue with Stop & Shop and is today with Whole Foods. The Stop & Shop driveway on Centre Street remains a traffic problem that the city is trying to solve.

The JPNDC established a four-year program to train local residents for construction and permanent jobs at the supermarket. When Stop & Shop opened in 1996, 210 employees were hired, about 60 to 80 percent of them JP residents.

While the Stop & Shop debate was sometimes “outrageous,” it was not as truly controversial as Whole Foods is today, Doherty said, because “the community needed a supermarket.”

“They were bringing affordable prices, quality food and local jobs,” he said of Stop & Shop. “That community down there has prospered because of that.”