BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Now this is what you call a holiday shopping special!
On Thursday, the School Construction Authority and New York University announced that they have agreed to extend the option up to 13 years for the city to build a public school at the site of the current Morton Williams supermarket in Greenwich Village.
The city had been under a Dec. 31 deadline to decide on whether to move forward with the contentious school project — as, meanwhile, the fate of the beloved, full-service, 24-hour supermarket hung in the balance.
The news broke shortly after 1 p.m. during a group phone call with stakeholders. Reportedly leading the discussion were Andrea Bender, the S.C.A. executive director, along with the chief of staff of Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer. Others on the line included local politicians Councilmembers Christopher Marte and Carlina Rivera and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, plus staff representatives of other local pols; Kyle Kimball, N.Y.U. vice president of government relations and community engagement; an N.Y.U. lobbyist; Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for Morton Williams; Jeannine Kiely, a former Community Board 2 chairperson; plus Mark Diller, C.B. 2 district manager.
During Marte’s first two years in office, the supermarket, at Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place, has been located within his City Council district. But, as of Jan. 1, due to redistricting, the Morton Williams will be in Rivera’s district.
It was reportedly when Rivera asked, during the phone call, if a new school at the site was needed right now that the decisive words were finally uttered.
“Carlina asked if there was need for a school and S.C.A. said clearly they did not have the need,” Lipsky reported.
Former Councilmember Alan Gerson, a lifelong resident of the extra-wide “superblock” that contains the supermarket, and Judith Callet, a Bleecker Street-area community activist, led the local effort to save the critical food source through their ad hoc group Save Our Supermarket a.k.a. S.O.S. An S.O.S. petition effort to preserve the store collected more than 8,000 signatures from local residents.
“It’s a very good holiday present for the community,” Gerson said. “And now we have 13 years to plan for an appropriate location for a new school. We should start immediately.
“In the meantime, it’s a tremendous victory for the community,” he said. “It would not have happened, I’m quite confident, if the community did not come together and protest and persist and make our united voice heard.
“It was both a victory for the community and for community,” he stressed. “This is grassroots community activism working at its best.
“I am quite confident the supermarket will be here for many more than 13 years,” he predicted, adding, “And in 13 years, we will celebrate the bar mitzvah [of the agreement].
Gerson gave kudos to all the local politicians who stood with the community and worked to find a way to save the critically needed market, including Marte, Rivera and Glick, as well as Congressmember Dan Goldman and Borough President Mark Levine.
The former councilmember also thanked The Village Sun for its ongoing coverage of the important local issue. While the major media might sniff dismissively at stories like the potential loss of a key supermarket, local community news outlets know well that these are among the top concerns for local readers.
“This also shows the importance of good, local community journalism,” Gerson said. “And you can quote me on this. If we didn’t have The Village Sun covering this activism, it would be like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. The coverage that The Village Sun gave to this issue was important. We need that accurate reporting to capture the attention of government and institutions, like N.Y.U.”
His S.O.S. co-chairperson Callet said, “Save Our Supermarket can celebrate with pride! Morton Williams will continue to serve our community at its current location! The LaGuardia Corner Community Garden will continue to bring joy and peace to all who share in its beauty! A double gift to all this holiday season!”
Community Board 2 was the main group advocating for the public school. Kiely, the board’s immediate past chairperson, has previously stressed that the school was the key community “giveback” in the block’s rezoning in 2010 that allowed the university to build its new Paulson Center on Mercer Street. The rezoning was expected to include an N.Y.U. commitment to relocate the Morton Williams, if needed, into the Paulson Center — yet somehow that proviso mysteriously vanished in the final restrictive declaration, and so the new building lacks any space for the market.
In a statement to The Village Sun, Susan Kent, the board’s current chairperson, said, “Community Board 2 is gratified that the city retained its option to build the 100,000-square-foot Bleecker public school — an option currently valued at more than $65 million to New York City taxpayers and likely increasing, given the scarcity of land in Greenwich Village, the Bleecker school’s transit-rich location and the need for new school capacity as the city implements smaller class sizes.
“I am relieved,” Kent added, “that our community will continue to be able to patronize Morton Williams, a full-feature, traditional supermarket, at its current location, though I am disappointed that there was no opportunity provided for local input despite repeated outreach to city officials.”
Asked to clarify what she meant by “no opportunity…for local input,” Kent said, “The first time that I, or to my knowledge any other local group, heard of the negotiations was when news of a signed agreement was announced.”
Avi Kaner, a co-owner of the Morton Williams supermarket chain, called the agreement a “win-win for everyone.”
Kaner explained that the city’s option to build a school has actually been extended to either 2031 or 2036, “depending on whether we exercise [a five-year] option on our lease.”
In addition, if S.C.A. does not say by Feb. 11, 2035, that it intends to build a school, then Morton Williams can enact a second five-year lease extension to Feb. 11, 2041.
“Number one, this preserves a supermarket for the community that serves 3,000 people per day,” Kaner said. “And it also preserves the option for the city to build a school on the property when the city has the funding and the demographic need for it.”
He noted that the outcome saves the city, at least right now, from having to spend “tens of millions of dollars” to construct a new school.
“None of this would have been possible without the community’s involvement and the grassroots efforts and all the communications by the elected officials,” Kaner said. “Had the community not stepped up, they could have lost their primary supermarket.
“This was not an easy achievement,” the owner noted. “It took us two years to get to this point. It’s a win-win. No one loses. Everyone wins. This gives everyone more time to figure things out without being under a rapid deadline.”
With the store’s future secure for the near term, he said they can now move ahead with needed improvements they had planned before everything fell into what he called a “quagmire” over the site’s use.
“The floor, the ceiling, the [refrigerated] cases — some of these cases are 20 years old,” Kaner noted. The renovations’ goal will be to create a “more modern, efficient, more comfortable shopping experience,” he explained.
Morton Williams took over the store in 2001. Grand Union, which previously owned both the supermarket and the lot, had gone bankrupt, after which N.Y.U. obtained the property in Bankruptcy Court.
“We opened the store in 2001,” Kaner recalled. “Our grand opening was the week of 9/11. We became the closest supermarket for Downtown [when access to much of Lower Manhattan was restricted]. At that moment, we made the decision that our market will always be open 24/7. Even during the pandemic, when everyone fled, we stayed open 24/7. We’re part of the fabric of the community — we’ve seen the ups and downs. Our motto has always been, ‘We’re in this together.’ We were there for the community after 9/11 and during the pandemic, and the community has been there for us.”
Asked if there would be any celebration of the saving of the supermarket, Kaner said, “After the holiday, we’ll figure out how to thank the community.”
Lipsky, a veteran lobbyist, said of the victory, “It shows what can be achieved when the community acts together and speaks in such a loud, clear, singular voice.”
A New York University spokesperson did not respond to a request to confirm that the agreement was made. However, Lipsky provided to The Village Sun a copy of the agreement letter signed by N.Y.U.’s Kyle Kimball with a space awaiting the signature of S.C.A. President and C.E.O. Nina Kubota.