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No fresh here, thank you: Board gives thumbs down to city initiative

While Community Board 17 may have had concerns about the city’s proposal to create financial and zoning incentives to attract supermarkets to open in New York’s food deserts, the City Planning Commission (CPC) did not.

Just days after the community board turned down the idea, during a contentious vote, the commission voted unanimously to approve it, sending it to the City Council for action.

The proposal, known as FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health), was developed as a way of providing under-served neighborhoods -- which typically have higher incidences of such conditions as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure -- with access to fresh fruits and vegetables, to counterbalance the clearly easy access in such neighborhoods to fast food and snacks that may be high in calories, and contain unhealthy levels of sodium, sugar and cholesterol.

Not all neighborhoods in the city were included in the proposal which did, however, encompass a broad swath of central Brooklyn, including East Flatbush, as locations where such incentives would be available to developers.

“This as something that is badly needed in the community,” noted CB 17 Chair Lloyd Mills, before the vote was taken. “We need fresh fruit, fresh meat, fresh everything, so this is an application that we should all support.”

Nonetheless, board members voted narrowly to oppose the proposal which, if passed by the City Council, would provide floor area bonuses and relax parking requirements for developers that include supermarkets in new residential construction, as well as allowing for larger supermarkets as of right in manufacturing districts.

The proposal would also provide tax incentives, including real estate tax reductions, sales tax exemption and mortgage recording tax deferral.

Board member Celeste Greene queried what sections of the community board had been “identified” as being in need of such facilities, and rebuffed efforts by the board’s Land Use Chair, Albert Payne, to read her the description of the program posted on the Department of City Planning Website, saying it didn’t answer her question.

It wasn’t just board members who were leery. “I agree with Miss Greene,” one local resident said. “There are plenty of places in CB 17 that have large supermarkets. A lot of people in CB 17 drive outside the community to do their shopping anyway.”

His was not the only skeptical remark. Another resident wanted to know. “Who’s going to be monitoring the foods to ensure their freshness?”

The proposal has the administration’s fervent backing. When it was first announced earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the idea, noting, “This comprehensive package of zoning based incentives and tax benefits for grocery stores will make it more advantageous to open new stores and upgrade existing stores so that New Yorkers in underserved neighborhoods can put healthy food on the table for their families. Facilitating investment by supermarket owners in these communities is essential to the future health of the city.”

CPC Chair Amanda Burden expressed her support for the proposal during the commission’s vote, remarking, “The nationally innovative program will bring fresh food choices into over 45 underserved and low income communities and importantly, also bring jobs to those neighborhoods. Our goal has been to create an environment where New Yorkers can maintain a healthy lifestyle and where grocery store operators can more easily find opportunities to open new stores.”

Sixteen CB 17 members voted in favor of the proposal during the board’s September meeting, which was held at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, 395 Lenox Road. However. their voices were overshadowed by the naysayers, with 10 members voting in opposition to the proposal, and eight members abstaining.

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