A Philadelphia food desert getting a new grocery

Standing at the grocery store's construction site are Warren McMichael (left) and Talmadge Belo.
Standing at the grocery store's construction site are Warren McMichael (left) and Talmadge Belo. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 06, 2012

It was almost by accident, the way City Council President Darrell L. Clarke shared the news with his mentor, former Mayor John F. Street. But in a big city where battles over business can be complex and too numerous to count, even a rare victory like this one in Brewerytown can become an afterthought.

The duo were on the phone Thursday morning when Street's onetime right-hand man said he had to dash for 31st Street and Girard Avenue. There, a construction crane would soon load a steel roof onto a new cinder-block building in a neighborhood that had once been the city's beer-brewing capital.

"Why? What's going on?" asked Street, the retired politico who represented the electoral district before becoming mayor and grooming his protégé there.

Clarke smiled broadly as he recounted the chat a few minutes later, standing at the construction site just blocks from the Philadelphia Zoo, suit jacket over a shoulder, forehead glazed with sweat on a stifling morning.

"Street," he told the ex-mayor, "we've finally gotten our market."

"Get out of here!" Street shot back.

Yes, that much grief and relief from two hardened political operatives. And all over a supermarket's landing in what has been a Philadelphia food desert.

A saga that began even before Street became mayor has come to a happy end in the Nutter administration - and through an unlikely mix of luck, the fusion of contradictory political agendas, and market forces shifting as a result of the recession.

The sweetener that sealed the deal with Bottom Dollar Food: Clarke and Nutter tapped into their respective allocations of unused Neighborhood Transformation Initiative bonds and, between them, spent $2 million to prepare the difficult triangle-shaped site for Bottom Dollar's construction.

NTI was the signature mayoral initiative of Street, who was notoriously at odds with Nutter for years over policy, personality, and more.

And yet, the two men's agendas coalesced in the city's time of need. Food-desert money from state coffers, which used to be spent to spur grocery development, had dried up in 2010. This was the only way to make a deal go through.

"Without the NTI dollars," Clarke said, "this deal does not happen at that site."

Brian Flanagan, chief of staff in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, said Nutter's grant to Bottom Dollar was $1.9 million, Clarke's $250,000.

Without the money, Flanagan said, the cost of clearing tons of buried debris would have been prohibitive for Bottom Dollar. The chain's sweet spot for spending was $6.5 million. Site prep would have exceeded that.

"At a $6.5 million number," Flanagan explained, "the store makes sense."

The cocktail of courtship, financing, and cleanup was remarkable in a city where enmity often characterizes - and can kibosh - complex deals.

"Everybody worked nicely together in the sandbox," said Richard Soloff, the Conshohocken developer who, as envoy for Bottom Dollar, scouted the Brewerytown site and brokered the deal over the last two years.

"I got tremendous support from the mayor and from Councilman Clarke, and I got tremendous support from the neighborhood," added Soloff, who anticipates more Bottom Dollar deals in the city in the mold of Brewerytown.

"The city councilman, the Mayor's Office, you name it - everybody wanted it," said Brewerytown developer John Westrum, who worked early on with Soloff to transfer land ownership for the deal to move forward. Westrum had been pressed for years by Clarke to build a grocery store. "It was just how to get it done."

"After all we went through, it was like, 'Thank you,' " said Warren McMichael, 72, a longtime resident who, as president of Brewerytown-Sharswood Civic Association, eagerly awaits the store's planned Thanksgiving opening a few blocks from his Stewart Street home.

For about 15 years, beginning when Street was councilman, Brewerytown fought to replace a supermarket lost during the urban decay of the 1990s.

Failure shaded local political campaigns as disaffected residents looked to blame someone, anyone, for why major grocers wouldn't come to their neighborhood near the Schuylkill, said Clarke, who as Street's chief of staff was on the ground for the entire ordeal.

The supermarket industry itself had been a culprit: For years, executives clung to a doctrine that they could make money only by plunking down a 50,000- to 65,000-square-foot suburban-style store in a city. Period. End of story. That, of course, meant no supermarkets in many developed urban neighborhoods, where parcels were scarce.

Brewerytown, too, was to blame. The lager-making mecca devastated by Prohibition was, by the 1990s, pocked with vacant houses and empty lots. It was no accident that it had lost its Shop 'n Bag at 27th Street and Girard Avenue. And such meager purchasing power only made the zip code an even tougher sell for big-time grocers being courted to return.

Civic leaders began advocating from day one, but became increasingly organized over the last eight years as Brewerytown and its more prosperous neighbor, Fairmount, saw property values rise through gentrification and redevelopment.

For years, however, they were approached only by fast-food and drugstore chains or a discount grocer they perceived as offering too marginal an assortment, said Bob Seabury, president of the West Girard Community Council.

Development of Westrum's upscale townhouses in the 2000s on the long-ago-demolished P. Baltz Brewing Co. site - next to what will become the Bottom Dollar - helped fuel an influx of urban professionals.

"We have an extremely economically diverse neighborhood," Seabury said, "from people who are down-and-out and down to their last dollar, to professionals who . . . are very particular about every bit of food that they buy."

All of which proved fertile ground for Bottom Dollar's new idea.

After the stock market crash of 2008, Belgium-based Delhaize Group came up with a model to capitalize on the recessionary mind-set of U.S. grocery shoppers of all incomes: Bottom Dollar Food.

Rather than open more big supermarkets similar to, say, the Food Lion stores also owned by Delhaize, the idea was to open 18,000-square-foot stores in diverse zip codes that would all offer a smorgasbord of merchandise at lower prices.

By staffing the markets with fewer workers and, for example, stocking produce on crates in a large cold-storage room rather than on shelves, a store would be competitive by cutting overhead, but not inventory.

To add to the allure, the stores would stock not just generic brands but ample national-brand groceries, as well as fresh produce, packaged meats, and more.

To test the concept nationally, Bottom Dollar began planting stores two years ago in none other than Philadelphia and its suburbs.

"I think the Bottom Dollar concept is going to solve a lot of these food-desert situations," said Soloff, adding that the model holds promise for the long-intractable problem of restoring grocery stores to underserved communities.

Bottom Dollar executive Jason Wilson was circumspect in sharing details about the chain's future growth in the region.

"We think there's continued opportunity to find additional stores, and we're trying to create a level of density and awareness in the market," said Wilson, vice president of strategy, planning, and business development.

Brewerytown residents were, at first, skeptical. They thought the chain was a dollar store. But then they visited locations in Philadelphia's Oak Lane section and, in Seabury's case, Willow Grove.

"I was very impressed, especially by the cold room where they had the produce," Seabury said.

"They figured, if it was good enough for the suburbs," said Clarke, again recounting the odyssey with a smile, "it was good enough for them."

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @panaritism.

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