Grocery promises run into doubts
After years of waiting for a grocery store that would end its status as a food desert, the East End of Bridgeport finally has that goal in sight. But the result might not be what, or where, many residents were expecting or had been promised.
With development along Bridgeport’s waterfront taking form at RCI Group’s Steelepointe Harbor site, including a Bass Pro Shops and other buildings, residents continue to wait for visible construction on the Miami-based developer’s Seaview Plaza site just across the water, which has long been promised as the site of a 40,000-square-foot grocery store for a community that has long lacked such an amenity.
Now, with the developer backing a second plan for a much smaller supermarket on a different site, community leaders say they are wary of the changing plans.
“They’ve been dragging their feet with that development,” said East End community leader Keith Williams.
RCI, under its Bridgeport Landing subsidiary, gained control of the Seaview Plaza site in 2014, but the city’s plans for a grocery store at the former location of a Carpenter Technology steel plant date back years.
“It’s been almost 20 years since anything has happened over there and now it’s moving slowly, and I think they are waiting on the casino to see what’s going to happen,” Williams said, referring to the waterfront casino and hotel that MGM International has proposed along with Bridgeport Landing for the site, which developers have said would share space with the grocery store.
The casino plan requires state approval.
In past interviews, the city has said RCI remains contractually obligated to develop a 40,000-square-foot grocery story at Seaview Plaza regardless of any casino plans. But the company has yet to begin environmental remediation at the site, which is supposed to accommodate a Gala Fresh Farms store.
Last week, RCI was approved for its second one-year extension on expiring site permits..
“We are pursuing moving forward with MGM to do an economic development that is much larger that would bring a high-caliber selection of restaurants and entertainment and a hotel to that site, as well as the grocery store and some other uses,” said Robert Christoph, principal of RCI.
In recent weeks, though, the developer has unveiled financial backing for development of the Civic Block project less than a mile away, which would feature a 16,000-square-foot Gala Foods grocery and possibly a pharmacy at one of the storefronts.
Gala Foods and Gala Fresh are under the same company, Aurora Grocery Group. But a 40,000-square-foot supermarket would offer an array of amenities that a smaller store couldn’t fit, with services including a deli, seafood and a bakery along with a pharmacy, customer service center and Western Union, among others.
“We offer amenities for customers to do a one-stop shop,” said Luis Correa, manager of the Gala Fresh Farms in Riverhead, N.Y.
And local leaders doubt there would be room for both stores.
“They’d compete against each other,” Williams said, adding that whichever one is built first would crowd out the other.
To City Council member Eneida Martinez, who represents the East End, a grocer and possible pharmacy along Stratford Avenue may be enough to sway residents to scrap the larger supermarket.
“What the community is going to want is a grocery store — a reasonable grocery store — that all can shop in and afford and a pharmacy that can meet the need,” she said. “As far as having a bigger grocery store, I don’t see where the community will push for that so heavily because we’ve been in a food desert so long (that) Gala Foods suffices the community in what they need.”
Pastor Kenneth Moales, of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on the East End, said he doesn’t see RCI following through on building the Seaview Plaza store. “That is going to become a huge entertainment hub, housing and entertainment,” he said.
With all the development happening throughout Bridgeport, including on the harbor, East End residents say they are done waiting for their turn with outsiders.
“It’s been obvious for 23 years that they are not coming, and we can do one of two things — we can continue to wait for development and developers to come into the East End, or we can take control and ownership of our own properties and our own communities,” Moales said.
With local developers overseeing construction of anchor projects like the Civic Block, Moales said he is moving ahead on a project to bring a new affordable housing complex with ground-level retail space to Stratford Avenue, as well.
If approved, the project would provide 37 units of affordable housing as well as ownership options for people looking to live in the neighborhood — one of a list of needs that has been voiced by community leaders in the past.
The apartments and lofts would feature hardwood floors, stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops. The rooftop is expected to feature a green area with a basketball court and a track around it, offering residents an opportunity to see the entire area, Moales said.
“The project will also serve as a complement to ongoing development in the neighborhood,” he added.
The plan shares the same proposed developer with the Civic Block in Anthony Stewart and Ashlar Construction, which is also renovating and expanding the Newfield Library. Construction of the project will also be managed by Vincent Wooten, who oversaw development of the new Harding High School.
“It’s an exciting time because the East End has not had this level of development or personal or private investment, but it’s coming,” Moales said, noting that the privately funded project is currently fielding offers from lenders that see the potential in building so close to ongoing development.