[Editor’s note: this story has been updated to include comment from the property owner, Midwood Investment and Development, and to correct details regarding the notice given to Associated Supermarket’s management.]
A 30-year-old Crown Heights supermarket is being forced to vacate its space within months, its owner says, prompting backlash from residents who believe the closure will make it harder to access affordable groceries.
Pablo Espinal, the owner of the Associated Supermarket at 975 Nostrand Avenue, told Bklyner that John Usdan, the CEO of Midwood Investment and Development, which owns the site, arrived at the supermarket on Thursday to inform him the grocer’s lease would not be extended beyond the spring. Associated has been operating on a month-to-month contract since last summer.
Midwood has not made public its intentions for the site, and no demolition or construction permits have been filed with the city’s Department of Buildings. The lot is zoned R7-1, which allows for the construction of mid-rise apartment buildings. A spokesperson for Midwood said negotiations over Associated’s future had been ongoing for years, but were not yet finalized.
“We’ve been in close touch with the owner, Mr. Espinal, for more than two years about our intention to change the use of this property and willingness to work with him through that process,” the spokesperson said. “We remain open to working with him toward a mutually agreeable path forward and look forward to continuing those discussions.”
But Akel Williams, a Crown Heights resident, called the supermarket’s closure a “tragedy” that would make it “much more difficult for our seniors and many who for years have relied on Associated Supermarket to be an affordable food source.” He said he and other neighbors plan to protest outside the store this weekend.
Several candidates for the nearby 40th City Council District, which includes Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and other parts of Flatbush, are also hosting a rally at the supermarket on Saturday morning.
Manny Tavares, who has managed the store since it opened in 1991, said that despite ongoing negotiations with the property owner, he had assumed the supermarket’s lease would be renewed until several adjacent properties on the northern half of the block, which borders Montgomery Street, were boarded up in preparation for demolition last year to make way for an eight-story mixed-use building.
“I guess when the owner saw that, he saw he could take advantage of just taking the whole thing,” Tavares said. He said he had suggested that whatever new structure is ultimately built include space for the supermarket, but was rebuffed. Before Associated took over the space, the site was home for decades to an A&P Supermarket.
A spokesperson for Midwood insisted the construction next door had no bearing on their own development plans, and that no commitment had been made regarding the future presence of a supermarket.
That lack of commitment has frustrated many community members.
“At a time when more than 1 million New Yorkers are battling food insecurity and our Grocery Stores have been providing essential services throughout a global pandemic, we cannot threaten their existence,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who represents the area.
“This is not the first time that the Landlord at 975 Nostrand has exploited its tenants and therefore the community,” the Council Member said, referencing an attempt several years ago by the property owner to close the site, which was also subject to community pushback.
Cumbo said the City Council “has no bearing over this proceeding,” but that she would “continue to stand with our community against any threat to quality of life. No New Yorker should be living in a food desert.”
While there are some other supermarkets nearby, including a Foodtown on Franklin Avenue and a Western Beef on Empire Boulevard, locals have long feared that development could reduce the number of affordable food options in the area. For years, rumors have circulated that the Western Beef could be demolished to make way for a new building.
“[The Associated] is a vital link to access food for so many in Crown Heights,” Alejandra Caraballo, a member of Brooklyn Community Board 9, which covers the area, wrote on Twitter. “We can’t allow more grocery stores in the neighborhood to close so developers can build condos.”
Tavares expressed pride in the supermarket’s active participation in the neighborhood; over the summer, Associated’s parking lot hosted a PPE giveaway by local Assembly Member Diana Richardson, and gave away $100 of free groceries to several customers as the pandemic stretched into the summer. But he also worried about the impact of laying off the store’s approximately 40 employees.
“Every block party, church event, precinct event, we’ve always been there,” Tavares said. “I believe in new development, but at least give some people a chance, especially stores like this that have been in the neighborhood for so long.”
A state moratorium on commercial evictions is currently set to expire January 31st, though both the governor and state legislature have proposed extending it in some form.