Met Food, low-cost grocer, meets its end on Mulberry

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A bilingual plea to save the Met Foodmarket at last Thursday’s rally. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY DENNIS LYNCH | Locals and elected officials put up a last-minute fight to save the Mulberry St. Met Foodmarket from closure last Thursday, but it appears it will shut its doors Sat., Jan. 7. Landlord Abington Properties is seeking “a more upscale operation” to replace it, according to Councilmember Margaret Chin, who organized the rally in front of the supermarket.

Met Food regulars said it was one of the few places in the Little Italy / Soho area where the neighborhood’s elderly and longtime rent-regulated residents could get reasonably priced groceries. Now they’ll have to trek a half mile to Whole Foods, at E. Houston St. and Bowery, and pay more for grub, or take an even-longer trip to Chinatown for similarly priced goods.

Even a half-mile walk is a non-option for many older folks in the community — particularly with groceries in each hand. More than 500 people more than 65 years old live in the 12-block radius around the market, according to census data. The seniors living in the 152 units of affordable senior housing just around the corner at the Little Italy Restoration Apartments will especially suffer, one community activist said.

“At least we still have Chinatown. That’s if you can schlep, but that’s not true for everyone,” K Webster said. “We have people in walkers coming in here, it’s no joke. For some people, if you get down the stairs you’re having a good day.”

Community Board 2 Chairperson Terri Cude said the loss of Met Foodmarket and other affordable amenities will push out many elderly and longtime middle-class residents.

“We’re losing affordable grocery stores and local-serving retail at a shocking pace,” Cude said, “and that is irrevocably changing our neighborhoods and pushing out the people who made them great places to live.”

The no-frills Met Foodmarket was fine by locals — the prices were right.

The no-frills Met Foodmarket was fine by locals — the prices were right.

A steady stream of shoppers of all ages strolled in past the crowd of activists in the rain on Thursday. The market stocked food that appealed to both the younger, newer and more-wealthy residents and the older more-frugal residents, alike, according to one regular customer who has taken advantage of the place’s regular sales to stock her kitchen. The more affluent crowd might not think twice about heading up to Whole Foods, but shoppers like her have much more to lose, she said.

“Anytime you’re in here, the young people are shopping at the fancy shelves and anyone over 45 is walking around with the sale paper,” Penny Jones said. “And we’ve been cooking out of the sale paper for 25 years and at the other grocery here before that.”

Abington has been shopping the property around since February. Met Foodmarket most recently was paying $90,000 per month in rent, and had told the community it was in talks to stay, until a surprise announcement earlier this week.

A flier advertising the space shows it broken into two stores for a total of 5,565 square feet of space at the ground floor and 4,730 square feet at the lower level. Abington did not return requests for comment regarding its plans for the space.

Retail rents have soared in the Soho area over the last couple of decades and forced many businesses that catered to the local population out of the neighborhood. In many cases, restaurants, luxury retail and bars are the only businesses that can sustain themselves in the high-rent environment.

That works if the more-affluent people moving into the neighborhood can consistently support those businesses. But the owner of a former print shop in the neighborhood who was priced out a few years ago said that some of the newcomers might not have enough cash to pay exorbitant amounts of dough for both rent and food.

“Even those who are paying top value, having affordable food is still important,” he said. “They’re paying a lot of money for rent. And for the rent-stabilized people, they’re usually on fixed income, so it’s important for them, too. It’s important for everybody.”

“And how many boutiques and bars do you really need in an area?” he added. “I know tourism is up, but the local people have to live, as well.”

Holding rallies brings attention to the disappearance of much-needed businesses. But the city’s commercial landlords are not legally obligated in any way to renew leases. There are no laws in place that restrict how much a commercial landowner can raise rent or that obligate them to renew leases, which are the core measures in the city’s residential rent-regulation laws.

Councilmembers have pushed for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act — which includes those protections for commercial businesses — in some form or another since the 1980s, but it has never made it to the floor for a full Council vote.

Critics and proponents alike cite potential legal hurdles in enacting the long-stymied bill. In 2015, Steven Spinola, the then-president of the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry trade association, told The Villager he did not believe the city had the legal power “to impose control on the leasing of properties.”

He added that the S.B.J.S.A., if passed, would amount to an “unconstitutional taking,” by limiting landlords from maximizing profits on their property.

Councilmember Chin was the primary sponsor of the S.B.J.S.A. during last year’s Council session and is a sponsor in this current session. A Chin spokesperson said she is supportive of commercial rent control and is looking at a measure to tax landlords of vacant properties more heavily than those with occupied properties — a measure modeled on Washington, D.C., law — to prevent landlords from “warehousing” a commercial space.

“We think they’re waiting to get that big tenant, a chain tenant or bank, and our fear is that space might stay vacant for months while that happens,” said Paul Leonard, Chin’s chief of staff.

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