When Fairway opened a new 35,000-square-foot West Harlem supermarket in December 1995, Harlem residents, many of whom had been traveling to New Jersey to shop in discount supermarkets, welcomed its low prices and high-quality products. The store created 150 new jobs, two-thirds of which it filled with local residents.
So how did the New York City bureaucracy respond? It threatened to shut Fairway down. The store sits on land zoned for manufacturing, where the law permits a 35,000-square-foot wholesale grocer but not a retail grocer over 10,000 square feet. Because Fairway does both wholesale and retail business, the city’s Buildings Department declared it was operating illegally and would have to restrict its retail operations to the allowable portion of the store unless it obtained a special permit, requiring lengthy public hearings. Fairway’s owners balked. “If it comes to it,” one told the New York Times, “there’s 60,000 square feet of space over in New Jersey.”
The store’s plight became a cause celebre, the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles-doubtless because Fairway's flagship store, on 74th Street and Broadway, is a favorite of journalists, politicians, lawyers, and other well-connected Manhattanites. Members of Manhattan's political establishment, including Borough President Ruth Messinger and Harlem City Councilman Adam Clayton Powell IV, rushed to Fairway's defense, urging the city to ignore its zoning regulations and save the jobs and the store for Harlem. In March, Buildings Department officials said they might work around the restrictions by classifying the supermarket as three separate stores.
All well and good, but what about other businesses in other neighborhoods that don’t have friends in the Manhattan elite? In 1994, when the Buildings Department threatened to shut down Korea Town Plaza, a supermarket in downtown Flushing, it provoked little response from those who now defend Fairway. Korea Town was able to continue operating only after a protracted battle.
The Giuliani administration proposes to amend the city’s zoning regulations to allow retailers of up to 200,000 square feet in manufacturing zones without any special permits. Current rules, established in 1974 in a futile effort to stop the flight of manufacturers from the city, have instead rendered many areas economic wastelands. Fairway’s champions should recognize the broader lesson that irrational regulations all too often drive businesses and jobs out of New York City.