A city plan to buy closed grocery store in a dire West Side food desert and partner with community members to bring a new grocer to the site received City Council approval Feb. 23.
The ordinance clears the city’s Department of Planning and Development to buy the former Aldi grocery store at 3811 W. Madison St. in West Garfield Park for up to $700,000, which would be financed with TIF funds. The store abruptly closed in October 2021.
Neighborhood groups have been negotiating with Aldi to buy the building, but the city plan gives local officials a way to take action if those talks fall through.
“This is something of utmost urgency and necessity. The community of West Garfield Park currently lacks any, and I say any, full-service grocery options,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).
But some aldermen who struggled with similar situations in their wards but got no city assistance bristled at the plan and questioned whether this will set a new course for how the city uses land acquisitions to intervene and fix neighborhood issues.
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) argued there needs to be a citywide plan for dealing with these kinds of acquisitions instead of dealing with them as one-offs.
“I don’t think any of us disagree that the West Side… absolutely deserves to have a grocery store,” Lopez said. “But if we start buying up vacant parcels in our wards now, we are going to see an explosion of city-owned property, city-owned storefronts, city-owned buildings… based on the policy logic we’re hearing today.”
Lopez said the situation would be different if a grocer had already been identified to fill the vacant Aldi building. But until an end-user is identified, it is “a dangerous gambit we are playing with taxpayer’s money,” he said.
The planning department has worked with neighborhood groups to identify several potential tenants who could begin operating out of the building, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.
Community leaders appealed to city leaders for help after the Aldi closed with little warning to neighbors, worsening the severe scarcity of healthy food in West Garfield Park, already considered a dire food desert.
The Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative organized a campaign demanding Aldi sell the vacant building to the community for $1 so it can be redeveloped into a supermarket with a mission and values that align with the needs of residents.
“The way in which Aldi abandoned the community, gave no notice to the employees, is something also that we can’t take lightly as a city. … there’s an urgent need for a grocery store to come back,” Lightfoot said.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) called on the city to use its land acquisition authority to take a stance against corporations that have disinvested from Black and Latino communities on the South and West sides.
“Everybody has a right to eat and needs to have an opportunity to have somewhere to shop. This is corporate discrimination on some of our basic human functions,” Hairston said.
The Rite to Wellness Collaborative’s campaign is about more than transforming the former Aldi location back into a grocery store, said TJ Crawford, the group’s director. It is equally focused on raising the standard for what kinds of businesses are welcomed into the community and taking a stand against companies that value “profits over people,” he said.
“Aldi is still not being held accountable,” Crawford said. “There has been no recompense to their actions so far. We need to ensure that they will carry the harm that was done and ensure they don’t do it to other communities.”
The lack of fresh food in the neighborhood contributes to the massive health disparities West Garfield Park residents face, Crawford said.
West Garfield Park residents have an average life expectancy 16 years shorter than people living Downtown, according to a 2015 Virginia Commonwealth University report. That gap isn’t due to shortcomings in clinical care alone, the study showed: It is also due to social conditions, including disinvestment, segregation and a lack of grocery stores.
Bringing a grocery store to the area is a key piece of the Rite to Wellness Collaborative’s efforts to revive the Madison Street and Pulaski Road commercial areas in West Garfield Park. The group is also undertaking a corridor planning initiative to improve the area, and is also working to bring a health center to the neighborhood.
“This is the right type of step that is needed in the Madison corridor to bring back the vitality of a business district that was once considered the Michigan Avenue of the West Side,” Ervin said.