A Fight Over the Fate of a Greenwich Village Supermarket Reignites NYU Expansion Tensions

By Arthur Schwartz

More than a year after it was slated to be demolished, a beloved Greenwich Village supermarket still faces an uncertain future—and residents are making a renewed push to keep it around.

Supermarket and Garden view from LaGuardia Place. Credit: Washington Square News.

The organizers of Save Our Supermarket (SOS) said they hope to put extra pressure on the City and NYU, which owns the property, to reach a resolution soon. The group started a petition to save the Morton Williams Market. They have collected more than 8,500 signatures since last fall.
“So many people depend on it for food, said Judith Callet, co-chair of SOS. “The elderly, the students, the faculty at NYU, just the neighborhood. In the neighborhood there’s nothing else. There’s no full service supermarket in the area.”

The conflict has its roots in an NYU expansion plan from more than a decade ago. During the approval process for the plan, NYU agreed to hand over the supermarket lot to the School Construction Authority if they decided to build a public school there. A demolition clause was built into the Morton Williams lease.

The city’s School Construction Authority exercised that option in December 2021 to build a five-story special needs school on the site. But after the School Construction Authority and NYU agreed to extend a deadline to make a decision on the Bleecker St. property, residents are pushing to move the process along.

“I’m less optimistic the longer we wait,” said Alan Gerson, a former City Council member who co-chairs a group advocating for the supermarket. “We’ve asked the city and NYU to come together on a process that will find an alternate location for the school in the area and preserve the supermarket, and that requires a bit of effort and creativity.

“What’s underlying the issue is the potential of the city getting free land. It’s like holding candy in front of a kid,” Gerson said. “ … I am concerned that the agency, rather than work and take the extra effort to come up with a solution, that it’s going to jump at the low carrot, or the low fruit on the tree. And that’s my concern, and that’s why the community plans to make its voice heard.”

If the school were to be built, residents thought NYU promised to move the supermarket to a nearby university space at 181 Mercer St. But years—and multiple decision deadline extensions—passed. Now, NYU says there’s no space left for the supermarket in the Mercer St. building.
Kevin Ortiz, a School Construction Authority spokesperson, said they would make a final decision about the lot’s future by the end of the year.

THE INTERIOR OF MORTON WILLIAMS, filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. Photo credit: Morton Williams Supermarket.

“The moment the School Construction Authority exercises the option, the store will be shut down and the community would be without a supermarket,” said Avi Kaner, the owner of Morton Williams, adding that about 3,000 shoppers visit the store every day.

If the school is built, Kaner said there may still be other options, like building a supermarket on the ground level of the school. However, that would leave the neighborhood without a supermarket for the years it would take to build.

“NYU is noted for breaking promises to the community, sadly,” said Callet, later noting that the phrase “NYU is a cancer” continues to come up in neighborhood conversations and community meetings.

Most controversy from the plan has settled—but the potential destruction of a beloved 24-hour supermarket has struck a nerve for the community, who say the area is at risk of inching toward a food desert with the removal of the store.

Not only will the supermarket be lost, so too would be the community garden next to the store on LaGuardia Place. It is the only garden like this west of 1st Avenue in the Village. Loss of the garden would be a loss of valuable green space for the neighborhood. The garden is currently in full spring bloom with families, visitors and students stopping by to admire the bright spring flowers and they’re gearing up for community programming this season.