The District says it will pump $3 million into housing and retail projects in Wards 7 and 8 to help close the city's long-standing "grocery gap."
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) this week awarded $2.1 million to the Jair Lynch group, which is redeveloping the shopping center at Pennsylvania and Branch avenues SE near the Maryland border, and $880,000 to the South Capitol Affordable Housing project located at Atlantic and South Capitol streets SW.
It is the most recent effort by the mayor and D.C. Council Member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), a potential challenger to Bowser in 2018, to bring grocery stores to Wards 7 and 8, which have three supermarkets between them.
"Everybody wants the same things no matter where they are living in the city," said Brian Kenner, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
Even as D.C.'s economy has boomed and grocery stores in gentrifying neighborhoods have proliferated, the dearth of grocery stores in its poorest wards has remained consistent. A study found that nearly 70 percent of the city's supermarkets in 2016 were concentrated in its wealthiest, predominantly white neighborhoods. The remainder were in majority black wards with lower incomes. In Wards 7 and 8, there are 50,000 people for every grocery store.
Gray, who participated in a two-mile walk over the weekend to highlight the grocery deficit east of the Anacostia, and Bowser have developed strategies to address the issue, although not always in concert.
Kenner's office specified that the $3 million Bowser awarded as part of the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund was an initiative that originated in the mayor's office.
Bowser said the fund will provide "an opportunity for us to infuse economic support into areas that need it most."
"Through these grants, we are being strategic about investing in projects that will improve the quality of life for residents — in this case, by bringing new jobs, services, and grocery options to the residents of Wards 7 and 8," said Bowser, who created a new cabinet post to focus on development in the city's poorest areas after she took office in 2015.
Gray, who served a single term as mayor before Bowser defeated him in the Democratic primary in 2014, introduced legislation in March to provide funds for retail and grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8 and conducted a surprise inspection of the Safeway in the East River Park Shopping Center in Northeast this summer. He declined to comment on Bowser's announcement.
Previous attempts by the city to attract supermarkets east of the river — over the course of multiple administrations — have failed. Efforts to bring two Walmart stores to the area ultimately fizzled, and a local organic grocery market closed its store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE in 2012, unable to make a profit during its two years in the neighborhood despite a $900,000 grant from the District.
Kenner said the pilot program is intended to fill a "gap in funding" that Bowser's office identified in mixed-use development projects in areas where unemployment is 10 percent or higher.
"We have devoted a lot of resources to affordable housing," Kenner said. "But what we were seeing was there was still a gap on the retail side. We want to begin to fill that gap, and eventually to drive unemployment down."
Jair Lynch, who changed the name of the strip on Pennsylvania Avenue SE from the Penn Branch shopping center to the Shops at Penn Hill when he bought it in 2016, acknowledged that attracting a grocer to the space is not easy. But he said the spot has appeal because of the disposable income of both nearby residents and commuters, who pass the site on a busy thoroughfare.
To attract commuters without changing "the character of the neighborhood," means building convenient parking, which the $2 million grant will go toward, Lynch said.
Planet Fitness signed a 15-year lease in the shopping center, which is estimated to create 400 construction jobs and 200 permanent retail jobs, according to Bowser's news release.
"As residents of Ward 7, we want a quality grocery store," said Ayanna Smith, a business owner who lives in the Penn Branch neighborhood.
Smith, a mother of two, said the grant is a "step in the right direction."
The grant will support the build-out for Good Food Markets in the South Capitol Affordable Housing project, which is under construction and will include 195 units of affordable housing and 5,500 square feet of commercial space. Good Food Market will partner with a community group in Ward 8 to bring fresh food and job opportunities to the Bellevue neighborhood, city officials said.