This is the first in a series of five interviews with staffers at the New York City Department of City Planning, where the interviewer interned while pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning.
After a rural upbringing outside Olean, New York, Jodi Bryon went to college at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she later earned her master’s in urban planning. Now team leader for the Housing, Economic and Infrastructure Planning division of the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), she’s an authority on the socioeconomic data tied to the department’s projects.
Bryon sat down with Next American City to talk shop, specifically grocery stores, as DCP gears up to expand FRESH, a program providing incentives for grocery stores in underserved New York neighborhoods. FRESH is featured in next week’s Forefront story on various efforts to bring healthy food options to the South Bronx, an area often considered “ground zero” of the food access debate.
Next American City: To start off, can you briefly introduce the FRESH program?
Jodi Bryon: Sure: FRESH was adopted in late 2009. DCP worked on it in collaboration with the city’s Department of Health, the Economic Development Corporation, the [New York City Council] Speaker’s staff, and City Hall. It combines tax and zoning incentives to help businesses overcome the barriers to entry and maintaining a store in the city. Those barriers are, in large part, cost. Land is expensive in New York City, and the cost of operating a business here is high. We wanted to at least level the playing field between grocery stores and other retailers.
NAC: Are grocery stores at a disadvantage?
Bryon: You hear it’s a penny profit business. Their products have a definite shelf-life, and, by and large, margins for all products are pretty low. Their livelihood and success is really based off volume — the larger the store, the more they sell.
NAC: What are some examples of the zoning incentives stores can receive?
Bryon: I’ll rattle them off. You can build a larger mixed-use building, if you include a ground-floor store. So you can add more residential units. You can locate a larger grocery store in a district zoned for light manufacturing. You can reduce the number of required parking spaces for the grocery store. We pretty much now allow a neighborhood grocery store without any parking. But for the lower density, more auto-centered areas, where we plan to expand FRESH, we’ve studied what kind of parking reduction is appropriate. We now need to vet it through the stakeholders.
NAC: Is this a program that any store can take advantage of? What if Walmart decides to open a grocery store in the city?
Bryon: We’re agnostic in terms of who operates the business. We don’t care if it’s a mom and pop, corporate-run, or a cooperative grocery store. All of those businesses can use the incentives. Zoning is a blunt tool — it dictates parking and bulk. What it’s not meant to do, and I’m not sure constitutionally it can, is decide what type of owner you can be and how your business operates.
But the zoning incentives are capped at 20,000 square feet for the bonus floor area and 30,000 square feet for the modification and use rules, so for the most part that’s not a large regional grocer. Trader Joe’s would fit within that but most others wouldn’t. The tax incentives are more flexible and can benefit any store that meets our definition.
NAC: When this program started was “food desert” a widely known concept?
Bryon: We don’t use that term and never have. Now you hear more often “food swamp,” for an area that may have different food retailers but perhaps they’re not that healthy. So you may find fast-food outlets and convenience stores, but not necessarily green grocers or a grocery store that sells fresh product.
NAC: What’s problematic about the “food desert” terminology?
Bryon: Even though the FRESH areas didn’t have grocery stores, there were other food retailers. And we’re a politically sensitive group. One thing we couldn’t do was assess the quality of each and every food store in the city. There are over 12,000 licensed food retailers in the city, and we’re a division of seven people. We had to make some broad-brush judgments, and we didn’t want to create wedge issues among the retailers. We want to work with them to improve their selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, so we didn’t want to get into the issue of nomenclature.
NAC: How did you identify need, then?
Bryon: We did an assessment to identify areas that were underserved. We looked at the existing size of grocery stores and their locations. Using data from the Department of Labor and the North American Industry Classification System, we took into account whether stores were likely to sell fresh food. And we studied neighborhood demographics: Were they low-income? Did the majority of households have access to cars to shop further from home? The Department of Health does an annual community survey, so we also looked at three responses covering obesity rates, diabetes rates and whether respondents had a single serving of fruits and vegetables the day prior to the survey.
NAC: There have been some studies and subsequent articles belittling the connection between grocery stores and neighborhood health. Can you address the criticism?
Bryon: These studies were not specific to New York City and evaluated very large geographic areas — the nation as a whole and California — where people typically drive to shop. The neighborhood context is important to consider and whether residents have the ability to travel to a store if one is not available close to home. More than 50 percent of households citywide do not have access to a vehicle, and that share is much higher in low-income neighborhoods, where fewer grocery stores are located.
NAC: How has the response to FRESH been so far? Have any good case studies emerged?
Bryon: Eleven stores, both new and retrofits, have taken advantage of the tax incentives. And we have two other new stores in pre-application for the zoning incentives. A third new store has taken advantage of both the tax and zoning incentives — it’s in a mixed-use affordable housing development on Third Avenue in the Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania. We wanted to locate these stores in emerging neighborhoods, and Morrisania matches that description. At one point it was strictly manufacturing, now it’s mixed-use, and there’s lots of new housing and retail in the area. We’ve heard good things about the grocery store, and we think it’s going to be a strong asset for the community. It’s exactly what we wanted the program to do.
Bridget Moriarity is a journalist based in New York City. Her writing has been published in Travel + Leisure and Art + Auction, where she also worked as an editor, as well as in Time Out New York, I.D., Modern Painters and Sotheby’s at Auction.