By Roger Paradiso
The last time I got involved with New York University’s insatiable appetite for expansion was 2015 when I did a film called The Lost Village. I surprised many who saw the film when I said that NYU was one of the largest landlords in New York City. Let’s lay the cards out on the table. The City of New York owns the most real estate according to a website called Curbed New York, and NYU is tenth on a list of real estate-holding institutions. Not to pick on NYU but note that Columbia University can’t field a decent football team, but they rank seventh!
Back in 2015, NYU disrupted Villagers by destroying a local gym, the Coles Sports Center, and beginning construction on a 23-story building on Mercer Street. It caused an uproar in the community, but NYU won out during discussions about this expansion plan. Let’s hope that NYU and the Mayor’s Board of Education and its School Construction Authority listen to the people this time, before they destroy places that they frequent. Let’s see how these real estate giants behave in their communities.
I interviewed Avi Kaner, who is one of the owners of Morton Williams Supermarkets, which has been targeted by the BOE and NYU who are playing the innocent Landlord. As most of us know, Morton Williams has been family-owned and operated for over 60 years and Kaner is a brother-in-law who joined the family business 24 years ago.
I found an old interview with Morton Sloan, Avi’s father-in-law, who created Morton Williams’ specialized food markets all over the city. Each one is a bit distinctive to the area they serve. For instance, the Bleecker Street store caters to families from the West Village and the NYU students and faculty who live in the neighborhood. Fresh produce and prepared food are a feature of the store near Washington Square Park. Many people love the store for the prepared ready-made meals. Avi says, “Villagers have loved the store for these features for decades since we moved in here 22 years ago.”
I asked Avi what he likes about the West Village and what makes the Bleecker Street store special to its customers.
“The West Village is a true community, where people come to live, work, study, and play. It is vibrant, dynamic, interesting and community centric.”
But recently, an old problem came up again with NYU and the New York Board of Education School Construction Authority.
“We have always had a wonderful business relationship with NYU, and many family members attended NYU. We signed the original lease 22 years ago after NYU purchased the building at the Grand Union Supermarket bankruptcy auction. Early last year, we renewed the lease for another 20 years but, towards the end of the year, the city’s school construction authority exercised an option to tear down the supermarket and community garden and replace it with a building to house a school. Since then, NYU has extended the option to the city until the end of this year. It is our hope that the city decides to preserve the supermarket that is used by thousands of West Village residents every single day,” said Kaner.
How does it feel to know you may lose this store?
“We are doing everything in our power to ensure the community does not lose its primary supermarket. When we found out about the city’s plans on the eve of Thanksgiving 2021, we were absolutely devastated at the potential loss to the community. We immediately mobilized and communicated with NYU, community leaders and elected officials. 100 percent of the elected officials have agreed that the supermarket must be saved. Over 8,000 community residents have also signed a petition to save their supermarket.”
What is your relationship like with the community?
“We are longtime members of the community. Our grand opening day was actually the week of 9/11. We kept the store open and fed thousands of first responders. During the Covid pandemic our store stayed open 24/7 and was a lifeline to the community. We support many local schools, organizations, and student groups.”
Many Villagers feel helpless when NYU expands their real estate holdings, I asked Avi what can people do to help save the store?
“The best thing people can do to help is to write to their local elected officials, letting them know the importance of preserving their primary supermarket.”
Over the years the Village has lost many low-density buildings and what they bring to the community’s health and character.
I asked Avi to keep us posted so we can keep our readers informed of the situation. It would be a shame to lose another store but also the gardens that are nearby. As we are all aware, NYU is still in the midst of the 2031 Expansion which caused such a community uproar in 2015. As we go to press, I hear that due to cuts in their NYU 2033 expansion budget there may not be space for a new Morton Williams Market and the LaGuardia Corner gardens because NYU has no room for them. The question is simple. Can a school be built elsewhere?
It’s David and Goliath time again. Will Morton Williams and LaGuardia Gardens survive the battle? Can Villagers, NYU students and faculty voices save the day?
As Wayne Gretzky once said, “You always miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” The people who want to address NYU’s expansion into their neighborhood need to start trying to win.
Roger Paradiso is a filmmaker and journalist. His film THE LOST VILLAGE is about the takeover of the West Village.