The upscale environs of the Palisades may not strike anyone as a potential “food desert” — a term of art usually reserved for more hardscrabble areas lacking in fresh-food sales — but residents say that could very much be the Ward 3 neighborhood’s future unless the D.C. Council acts Tuesday.
Palisades residents are now served by one full-service grocery store, the Safeway on MacArthur Boulevard NW near the Georgetown reservoir. After spending much time and money exploring a mixed-use renovation of that store, Safeway now appears intent on selling the store outright to a developer. And residents fear that Safeway, in keeping with its past practices and those common in the retail industry, will move to restrict a new supermarket from opening on that site once it leaves.
If the Safeway were to close, Palisades residents’ other options would be to travel more than two miles to either the Georgetown Safeway or Glover Park Whole Foods Market. Those living in the western reaches of the neighborhood might instead find themselves visiting Tenleytown or, gasp, Bethesda.
Enter D.C. Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David A. Catania (I-At Large), who have proposed emergency legislation set for a Tuesday vote that would ban property owners who are in the “primary business of selling grocery products” from restricting the future use of the site for food retail.
“This undermines competition in the grocery store industry and creates ‘food deserts,’ which limit resident access to fresh food,” the council members wrote in a memo to colleagues and staff. “In an area bereft of other grocery store options this unnecessarily harms resident access to healthy, affordable food” — particularly seniors and residents without cars.
Cheh said in an interview that the legislation was motivated by the developing situation in the Palisades. “But it’s broader than that,” she said. “It’s like a boilerplate thing for them. To put that [covenant] in, it may effectively foreclose the ability of a community to have a grocery store. … The idea of having a neighborhood grocery store is extraordinarily valuable in any community.”
Safeway is not swayed by those appeals. In a letter sent to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Monday, a company executive asked him to oppose the legislation, saying, “Safeway has not entered into any discussions or negotiations with potential purchasers” despite entertaining offers for the Palisades store and that, moreover, the bill is “bad public policy and would have a chilling effect on business.”
“Covenants are a longstanding common business practice in retail found thousands of times around the country, and are helpful in enabling another of the retailer’s stores serving that community to be successful,” wrote Brian S. Baer, Safeway’s Eastern Division president. “In a highly competitive grocery marketplace, covenants are important to help ensure business success in the long term.”
Cheh said she wasn’t swayed by Baer’s arguments. “It’s exactly the opposite,” she said. “It restricts business instead of enabling it.”
Update, Oct. 7: The council passed the emergency bill this afternoon, 12-0. Before the vote, Mendelson said Baer’s letter made him more inclined to support the covenant ban, not less.