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Pols lead protest of closing of Woodside Foodtown

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Three borough politicians staged a rally Friday to protest the imminent closure of the Woodside Foodtown on Roosevelt Avenue, which is expected to reopen as a drugstore after a national developer assumes the lease next month.

But Foodtown officials said the community's support is coming too late to save the store, which will close its doors on Feb. 7 when its lease expires.

"I wish it could help us get a new lease. We'd love to stay," said Noah Katz, a vice president with Foodtown who owns the store with his brother and father.

"We thought it was great that the neighborhood came in support of us," said Bob Peterkins, the store's longtime manager. "We're realistic - we realize it's too late. Nothing can be done at this point."

City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside), U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) and state Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth) led a group of about 50 Woodside residents in protest inside the store Friday. Community leaders praised the store for offering wide aisles that accommodate elderly people who use wheelchairs and walkers, and they said its closure will force many senior citizens to travel farther to purchase food.

"This is a big problem for not only our neighborhood but it seems it's going to be a big problem for every neighborhood outside of Manhattan," Gioia said in a phone interview following the protest. "Escalating real estate prices are pricing neighborhood supermarkets out of the business."

The Foodtown's building at 50-15 Roosevelt Ave. is owned by the Bayside-based Grace Korean Presbyterian Church, whose attorney said the church signed a new lease with the Slane Company, a national mall developer that approached the church offering to pay a "substantial increase" in rent.

"They entered into an agreement that will become effective when the present tenant vacates," said Harvey Goldstein, the church's attorney. "This is the law that when you have a commercial lease and your lease expires, you're out."

Noah Katz said Foodtown was never even given an opportunity to match Slane's offer because the church refused to renegotiate its lease.

A representative of the Slane Company said Monday no one could comment on the property.

But Slane officials told Gioia's staff they plan to sublet most of the vacated space to a major pharmacy like CVS or Duane Reade, which would have a higher profit margin - and hence the ability to pay more rent - than a supermarket. People in the community claim a new pharmacy is unnecessary because another one already sits two blocks away.

Gioia said he plans to introduce legislation that would require supermarkets to give the community ample notice before shutting down. News of the Foodtown's closure only reached him when customers started noticing its dwindling shelf stock.

Goldstein said supermarkets getting priced out of real estate is a widespread issue that city legislators should tackle by providing subsidized properties for them, which he said would be more productive than protesting a landowner's right to lease space to the highest bidder.

"It's great he's gonna stand up to this community . . . but he's not doing anything," Goldstein said of Gioia. "It's a charade. He knows he can't stop it. Why doesn't he do something constructive?"

But Gioia responded that the community is presenting a united front to convince Slane to consider residents' needs when formulating plans for the property.

"The important thing is for our neighborhood to stand united against greedy real estate developers who come into our neighborhood and put their bottom line ahead of our well-being," the councilman said. "We want him to take into consideration our neighborhood's concerns."

Gioia said he plans to explain the neighborhood's need for a supermarket when he meets with Slane officials in the near future.

The Foodtown's closure is only the latest in a series of Queens supermarkets being shuttered in favor of drugstores. Whitestone residents have loudly protested the replacement of a Key Food supermarket on Francis Lewis Boulevard with a CVS Pharmacy last fall, while another Key Food on Grand Avenue in Maspeth shut down late last year.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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