Syracuse Real Food Co-Op seeks a new home

A Westcott community co-op's expansion prompts the need for a new location, but zoning laws and local residents reject the store's first proposal.

Tucked away in the Westcott neighborhood, at 618 Kensington Road, sits the Syracuse Real Food Co-op. The store, which is “cooperatively owned” by more than 2,600 residents in the Syracuse community, aims to provide the city with organic and local dairy products, produce, eggs and meats, as well as a place for members to meet and work together.

Photo: Jessica Palombo
Produce at the Syracuse Real Food Co-Op. The owners hope to move to a larger facility by the end of 2012.

With expanding membership, the co-op’s board looked to move out of what is becoming an increasingly cramped location on Kensington Road and expand to a larger store with new amenities, including a café and wider selection of food options. Earlier this year the store submitted a proposal to the Syracuse City Zoning Office to move to a larger location at 2200 E Genesee St. But a combination of factors, including resident concerns near the proposed location, derailed the effort, and the co-op is still looking for a new home today.

The store has seen interest swell in recent years and now serves almost 3,000 members. In 2009 the store brought in about $18,000 in new capital investment, which is the equivalent of adding a new member every other day, a 20 percent increase from any year in the store’s history. It was the culmination of a revival for the co-op, which took in $1.6 million in revenue, up from $300,000 in 2000. It also gave the co-op board a chance to spearhead the move, something they’ve been looking to do since 2006.

“Our business has grown, our co-op has grown, and our store hasn’t,” said co-op general manager Travis Hance. “People love the products we provide, they want to be able to buy more products, they want expanded deli and seafood operations, and we can’t provide that in the store we have.”

The new store would include a 16-seat café area, major deli department with hot and cold food bar, a larger selection of produce and a loading dock.

View Coop's Proposed Move in a larger map

Search for a new location

The co-op targeted the location at 2200 E. Genesee St. for their expansion. The former synagogue currently hosts a plastic surgeon’s office and a vacant area, as well as the space where the store wanted to move, owned by hematologist Dr. J.R. Smith. Smith closed his practice and put the location on the market for $1.5 million. Co-op owners saw that the 8,000 to 12,000 square foot area as ideal for expansion. The co-op board negotiated the selling price down to $730,000 in early 2009, and after securing the property submitted documents to the zoning board to approve the move.

But the move would change the zoning ordinance in the area from residential to commercial. This would open land up to any commercial business, a shift some residents didn’t like the sound of.

The proposal underwent an intensive review process, with residents, the zoning board and to co-op all weighing in. The zoning process required the co-op to provide proof the seller of the property had a financial hardship that was not self-created, evidence that the building had unique characteristics that would make it unlikely for other properties around it to have the same changes and a convincing argument that the move would not change the intrinsic characteristics of the neighborhood.

Co-op owners argued that given the number of homes in the vicinity the likelihood of more businesses popping up was slim.

But residents complained of the possibility of increased traffic, the addition of a large and noisy loading dock and the addition of pedestrians to their neighborhood.

“Originally I was intrigued, but as we learned more about it we became worried,” said Andrew McTyre, who lives directly across the street from the proposed location on Allen Street. “The size, costs, destruction of trees in the area, and the addition of a loading dock, it was too much.”

In response, Hance said the co-op did intensive market studies on traffic that showed increases would be minimal, if at all, and that the doctor’s office actually brought in more congestion than the store would. He also argued the store would provide jobs in a down economy and pump money back into local businesses.

Neighborhood negotiations

But residents said their input wasn’t sought until after they voiced concern with the plan. Doug Armstrong, who lives two houses away from the location on Allen Street, said the co-op was overreaching and the neighborhood would not be ideal for a large business.

“I don’t see how they can market themselves as a mom and pop store, yet move to an 8,000 square foot retail place, build a giant loading dock, and have 65 foot trucks that really wouldn’t fit on the block or be able to make the turn to come through,” he said. “There were too many red flags. There were trying to bank on their reputation, when really that’s not what they were going to be anymore.”

Armstrong pointed to other locations the store could have looked at, including vacant buildings in the Westcott business district, and said the fact that the co-op had been profitable for only six of the past 36 years concerned residents. If the store failed in the new location, it could usher in chain stores to a residential neighborhood since the zoning would have been changed.

“Many families have been here for decades, new families are moving in because of the residential nature of the neighborhood,” he said. “We wish the co-op luck, but there was no real need for the expansion here.”

Others shared Armstrong’s feelings – they were fine with the co-op’s plans to move, but felt the size and nature of the expansion on E Genesee Street was would not work.

“It would be way too much noise, and this is a residential area. It’s not meant to be commercial,” said Joe Montello, who lives on the north end of Allen Street. “It wasn’t the co-op I was against, it was the location.”

Hance said he heard arguments that the store would attract more crime and drug dealers, accusations he said were not realistic.

“There were good arguments, but there was also a lot of hyperbole and fear that we’d bring crime,” he said. “A lot of those things would not have happened.”

Harriet Brown, a co-op member who lives near the proposed location, said she was surprised by the amount of opposition she encountered after the co-op proposed the move. Many people did not want to see a loading dock from outside their window, she said, even though many felt it would help improve a downtrodden area.

“I feel like that part of the neighborhood is dying,” said Brown, who has lived near co-ops in other cities, including Madison, Wis. and Brooklyn, N.Y. “The co-op would provide a sense of community.”

She also felt that arguments that the co-op could fail and a big box store would take over the space were not realistic since the store had been operating for over 30 years.

“I really think this issue has divided the neighborhood,” she said.

Anne Clarke, who also lives nearby, supported the co-op’s move. She said traffic concerns were overblown, and pointed out that many in her neighborhood shop at the store anyway. Moving it closer would simply make it more convenient for residents.

“Everyone uses it, we’d just use it more,” she said. “Local politics got in the way. The idea that the business plan couldn’t make it here wasn’t true.”

Both the co-op and zoning commission went door-to-door in the area over the summer to gauge the public’s mood. The store received 220 letters concerning the issue, with most in favor and with 40 in opposition. Many feared that the move would fail, and the area would then be open to any chain store that could afford to purchase the space.

In late August the board voted 6-1 to reject the proposal, saying the co-op could not prove they were not going to change the intrinsic characteristics of the neighborhood.

Moving forward

Andrew Maxwell, the director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability for Syracuse, said many in the city supported the move and felt it could work, but respected the board’s decision. He said the main goal now is helping the co-op find a solid new location.

“Going forward we just want to work with the co-op in whatever ways we can to help them,” he said. “They’ve got a number of things that they consider parameters in selecting a new location. Our hope is they’ll continue to communicate with us on new locations and welcome the city in helping with the planning process.”

The store is still looking for a new location to move to. Hance did not want to reveal what locations were being looked into, but said they needed to share the same credentials as the plan to move to E Genesee Street.

“It’s better to have local control of capital and business,” Hance said. “To me this would be a huge win story, this little organization with 18 employees exploding to 60 employees, probably tripling revenue in year one and being a successful business model that we could all own and we can feel the success of and enjoy as a community.”


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