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Chelsea Now: Loyal Customers Rally, as Supermarket Faces Lethal Lease

“The elected officials and the community here today are ready to come to the table,” said Councilmember Corey Johnson (in tie), with State Assemblymember Dick Gottfried (to the right) and Public Advocate Letitia James (to the left).

By Yannick Rack, 3/16

There’s not enough stock lining the shelves to come up with the kind of bread a beloved supermarket will need to stay in business.

Dozens of residents from Chelsea and the West Village rallied around a who’s who of elected officials on the corner of Eighth Ave. and W. 14th St. last week, to protest the imminent closure of their Associated supermarket — whose owners say they’re unable to sign a new lease that would more than triple their rent.

“We’re not going to have a grocery store or a gas station left in the borough of Manhattan — and with all the shops, supermarkets and bodegas [leaving], we’re losing the souls of our neighborhoods,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, speaking to the crowd on Sun., Mar. 13, in front of the soon-to-be-shuttered store at 255 W. 14th St., which has been an important source of produce, canned goods, and camaraderie for almost three decades.

“We cannot be a mall. We are not Idaho, we are not Minnesota,” Brewer shouted, to applause. “We are the great Manhattan, with a diversity of businesses — mom-and-pop, owner-operated.”

The protest was organized by City Councilmember Corey Johnson, who addressed the crowd alongside Brewer, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Public Advocate Letitia James, State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Assemblymember Dick Gottfried.

Along with chants of “Save our supermarket!” and the signing of petitions, the roughly 100 residents in attendance also cheered on Gladwin Francis, one of the store’s co-owners. Kown to many as “The Mayor of 14th Street,” he described how he and his partners went to see their landlord three weeks ago to negotiate a new lease — only to find out that their rent was due to rise from $32,000 a month to more than $100,000.

“What we had in mind, and what they wanted, was just impossible [to unite],” Francis said, referring to building owner Pan Am Equities, a part of the prominent Manocherian family’s real estate empire.

“We’ve been here for 27 years, we have never been late on our rent. We really, from the bottom of our hearts, hope that something can be done,” he said, adding that, otherwise, they would have to be out by May.

It was 1989 when the Associated first put down roots in Chelsea, providing a much-needed source of food for an area that had yet to experience its boom years. Back then, “nobody wanted to take the space,” recalled Francis of the prime corner location, whose rent was $10,000 a month. More than just his daily job, he said the supermarket had put his kids through college and provided him with a second home in the neighborhood.

“This store, it’s like my baby. This is my lifeblood,” he said, standing on the sidewalk as longtime customers filed in and out, carrying produce-filled bags after the protest. “For it to be taken away from us just like that — it’s heart-wrenching.”

Walter Brnjac, a manager at the store for the last three years, said he wasn’t surprised it had come to this, even though he was sad to leave the neighborhood.

“Of course I feel bad; we’ve been here forever. It’s kind of the end of an era. But we knew it was coming,” he said. “You could see the handwriting on the wall. You could see what apartments are going for here.”

Both Francis and Brnjac said they had no idea what was going to fill the store’s space near the corner of Eighth Ave.

Representatives for Pan Am Equities, which owns the building, declined Chelsea Now’s repeated requests for comment.

“The elected officials and the community here today are ready to come to the table. The only people not ready to come to the table is Pan Am Equities,” said Johnson, who added that he had tried to call Pan Am’s CEO himself, but only reached a man named Jason — who was uncooperative, and accused the council member of making threats by mentioning the planned protest.

“He was very rude, dismissive, and he wouldn’t even have a conversation. He asked me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” Johnson said after the demonstration. “It was not a good conversation.”

“When this individual said to Councilmember Johnson, who do you think you are — we are New York City!” said James. “And we rely on our small supermarkets.”

The elected officials also lamented the loss of affordable stores as a larger issue. A Food Emporium on Sixth Ave. was forced to close its doors two years ago, Johnson noted, and the Village lost a D’Agostino’s on Greenwich St. last fall.

“If you look across the street,” said Johnson, as he pointed at two locations across W. 14th St., “a shuttered storefront over there, a ‘For Rent’ sign that’s been in the window over there for years. It is happening throughout our neighborhood, and it’s having a real effect.”

Last week, longtime patrons of the grocery store said they had come to depend on the Associated, which offers relatively low prices in a neighborhood where they feel everything is getting more expensive by the week.

“When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. When she would go food shopping, she wouldn’t take me to the ‘supermarket.’ She took me to Associated,” said Lowell Kern, a vice-chair of Community Board 4, who noted that the board had formed a Business Diversity Task Force to combat precisely this issue.

“We can’t keep losing assets of community value. The real estate industry has to work with us,” he said.

“I’m beside myself because this is the only store I can afford, where I can get a bang for my buck,” agreed Helen Murphy, who lives at Selis Manor, a residential building for visually impaired and physically disabled people on W. 23rd St., btw. Sixth and Seventh Aves.

The 64-year-old, who receives around $840 a month in supplemental income and disability benefits, as well as just under $200 in food stamps, said she wouldn’t be the only resident there who would suffer when the store closes — not least because it is the only supermarket in the area that delivers grocery orders for free in a 10-block radius.

Bob Pollak, who has lived on W. 16th St. for over three decades and has been shopping at the store since it opened, said the hardest-hit will be seniors who depend on having an affordable supermarket within walking distance.

“It’s going to be a hardship for a lot of people,” he said. “This was really an essential supermarket. It’s situated perfectly between the Village and Chelsea.”

There were others who, although outraged by the rent hike, dismissed the protest as a futile effort and an exercise in political grandstanding for the elected officials — while ignoring the simple solution at hand.

“The landlord is not the problem. It’s the elected officials allowing this to go on, to allow small businesses to be at the mercy of the landlord when their lease expires,” said Steve Null, a small business advocate and the author of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a stalled bill in the City Council that aims to establish a right to fair commercial lease renewals.

The bill, which has just over two dozen supporters in the council, according to the advocacy group TakeBackNYC (, would give businesses the ability to go through binding arbitration with their landlords to reach a fair rent with a guaranteed 10-year lease extension.

“On the flyer [for the protest] it said, ‘Save Our Supermarket!’ Why was it singular? What happens to this supermarket is happening to every single business in the Village and on the West Side,” said Null.

“When they start making a sign that says ‘Let’s save all of our businesses’ — then it means something.”

Shifting blame away from the landlord might have been a controversial stance at the rally, but Francis, for his part, said he doesn’t entirely disagree. “It’s not them per se,” he said of Pan Am. “I think it’s just New York.”

Offering a forecast of life at Selis Manor without the benefit of free deliveries from the Associated, Murphy was less generous. “They’re doing us a disservice,” she said of the landlord. “If they go out of business, we’ll really feel it.”