By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010; B01
Soledad Hernandez spotted the barren shelves Tuesday, as soon as her wheelchair was steered into the neighborhood supermarket she has visited once a week for many years. Gone were the heads of lettuce, the Roma tomatoes, the onions. There wasn't even a grape.
"Where is all of the fruits and vegetables?" Hernandez, 78, asked.
After more than 25 years serving the Edgewood neighborhood, the Safeway store off Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington will close Saturday. But for some residents in a nearby enclave of rowhouses and high-rise apartments, the store began closing, shelf by shelf, months, if not years, ago.
A Giant supermarket opened nearby in 2002, pulling away some customers. Ames department store pulled out of the area more than a decade ago. It was replaced by a National Wholesale Liquidators, but that store filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Discount clothing outlet Foreman Mills has moved in.
The truth, said Craig Muckle, manager of public and government relations for the Eastern Division of Safeway, is that the store had been unprofitable for about 10 years.
"The Giant has definitely had an impact on us," he said. "While we are closer to the Metro, the Giant is more convenient for people coming off the Metro, and it is located in a plaza that is frankly more vibrant."
He referred to the Giant and its parking lot being adjacent to the Metro station and its parking lot. Although Safeway is closer to the Metro mileage-wise, shoppers would have to cross Rhode Island Avenue to reach it.
For longtime shoppers, that Safeway has been more than a store. In those aisles, people kept family recipes alive, got the latest gossip and bought cakes to celebrate milestones. Cashiers were more than employees; they were friends.
"It is really sad because many people depended on this store," said Zelma Johnson, 54, who lives in Northeast.
It was particularly convenient to residents of the nearby Vantage at Edgewood Terrace, an apartment complex of families, singles and senior citizens, such as Bernice McIntyre, 70.
"I walk to the store," McIntyre said. "I don't want to go to the Giant because it is a longer distance. And those steps: There are 52 steps."
The Giant is four blocks from Edgewood Terrace, but residents must walk down one hill and then up another.
Several residents said they wondered whether Safeway officials were closing the store because it is in a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood. The nearby Giant draws a wider cross section of the area's residents.
Muckle denied that the neighborhood's racial makeup had any bearing on the decision to shut the store.
"We have a strong commitment to the black community," he said. "We are the only major grocery store east of the Anacostia River. We have stores in almost every ward of the city except for Ward 8, where our store on Alabama Avenue serves residents in that community."
Muckle said the decision to close the store was based on economics.
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said he was disappointed that Safeway officials did not do more to upgrade their store to compete with Giant.
"Rhode Island Avenue is a great location. It has tremendous opportunities and is adjacent to the Metro," Thomas said. "But Safeway didn't rise to the challenge. They really didn't make enough investments to that store, and residents deserved better."
On Monday night, Thomas and Ward 5 community leaders met to discuss long-term development plans for the Rhode Island Avenue corridor. Thomas said the sentiment among members of the group is that a store in the order of a Giant or Whole Foods should fill the site once Safeway is gone.
"We want a quality business in there," he said.