March 14, 2011

Call for a Collegetown Grocer

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On a recent night, as the snow fell, I was craving grilled eggplant. The kind you can cook yourself by slicing it into strips, brushing it with olive oil and garlic and placing it under the broiler until it’s tender and barely charred. There was only one problem: nowhere to buy fresh vegetables near my apartment in College­town.

If I had a car, I could just drive to Wegmans or Tops. In 2007, about 4 percent of Cornell freshmen brought their cars to Ithaca, according to a Sun article. But I’m not one of those lucky few, and although I do have friends who drive to the supermarket every week, it would be a bit rude to call them late on a school night and ask them to drive me to buy eggplant. Eggplant is certainly not a necessity. I could perfectly well go to sleep without it.

And even though I didn’t want to give up my aubergine dreams, it seemed useless to hope that they would be satisfied. The possibility of taking the bus flitted through my mind, but as economical as the TCAT is, it’s often not the most efficient mode of transportation. The drive alone takes about thirty minutes, no matter which supermarket you go to; waiting time can be up to an hour. As delicious as grilled eggplant is, it’s not worth a two-hour bus trip, particularly when you’ve got a full night of studying planned for after dessert.

I thought about going to a restaurant. But though that might satisfy my craving in the short term, it’s expensive to eat out every night. A sandwich costs about $6 — and that’s on the cheap end. At a sit-down restaurant in Collegetown, a meal for one can easily total $15-20. Cooking with premium ingredients — extra-virgin olive oil, organic vegetables, artisan bakery bread — is much cheaper in comparison.

All this fuss for a simple dish made me wonder: why is there no supermarket in Collegetown? You’d think that in a university town, where it can be difficult to eat healthily on a student budget, there would be serious demand for a place to buy fresh fruit and produce — particularly at Cornell, which has both a hotel school and an agriculture school, testifying to an institutional interest in food. Wilson Farms and Jason’s sell bags of iceberg lettuce and baby carrots, but not only are they extremely limited in selection, most of their products are considerably marked up in price for students’ convenience. A snack-size bag of baby carrots at Wilson Farms costs about the same price as a three-pound Club Pack at Wegmans.  And while Tung Fang on Eddy and Collegetown Mini Mart on Dryden are great sources for ethnic products, they offer mainly sauces and dried products, with a limited selection of frozen produce.

Sure, these stores would do in an emergency. But should we have to settle for last-resort convenience foods every night? No wonder some students subsist on ramen and Chips Ahoy, while others are lucky to receive monthly food deliveries from their parents.

So why is there no supermarket in Collegetown? Might the reason be zoning laws? Although Collegetown has had strict zoning rules in the past, recent interest in development led the Common Council to endorse a new plan in 2009 that encouraged several goals, one being “to sustain a thriving, year-round Collegetown business district.” In the near future, Common Council will be considering establishment of a new zoning district that would allow for taller buildings. Many of these plans are focused on housing — understandably, given the great demand for housing close to campus — but they also suggest the possibility of developing new businesses such as supermarkets in the larger storefronts.

I asked Joe Romano, general manager at GreenStar Cooperative Market, why they don’t open a branch on College Ave. GreenStar has two branches downtown, one across from DeWitt Mall on the Commons and a larger branch farther out on Route 13. If the weather had been warmer and I hadn’t had so much work, I might have trekked down there for my eggplant. Although Mr. Romano said zoning laws play no part in the matter, he acknowledged that the lack of available space constituted a main reason why GreenStar does not open a branch in Collegetown. But another, perhaps larger reason, he said, was Collegetown rent. Collegetown apartments cost more, on average, than off-campus housing on West or North, and the same is true for the neighborhood’s commercial real estate. Since grocery stores tend to have very low profit margins as opposed to other types of stores, Mr. Romano explained, they can’t afford prime locations. That’s why Urban Outfitters — a national retail chain — has a central location on the Commons, while grocery stores are farther out.

What about offering lower rents, tax breaks or other financial incentives or subsidies to GreenStar or another local supermarket to open a branch in Collegetown? Collegetown residents could pay higher taxes to finance these subsidies, since a Collegetown grocery store might well save them money in the long run. Those without cars would no longer have to pay the convenience premium for Wilson Farms or Jason’s limited selection, and they would get far more variety, while those with cars would save the gas and time to travel to Wegmans or Tops. Everyone would win, both economically and environmentally.

Mr. Romano also said GreenStar would be interested in opening a location on campus, perhaps in partnership with the University. For students on a meal plan, this idea might not sound like such a big deal. But for all the Cornell students who dream of grilling their own eggplant, either of these options would be amazing. How awesome would it be to buy your groceries on the way home from class?

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen