Southwest residents have long kvetched about their local Safeway, on M Street SW. Shortages of staples such as bread and milk, produce so aged it wilts before you can get it onto the dinner table, long checkout lines—-those experiences are consensus points for those who live in the city’s forgotten corner.
And another point of consensus: The M Street Safeway is better than no grocery at all, which is what Southwesterners are bracing for this spring. During about two weeks in April, the company plans to close down the existing store while it puts the finishing touches on a brand new Safeway, set to open April 16 as part of a redevelopment of the same parcel.
A two-week closure might not be a big deal in neighborhoods with abundant shopping options, but it’s going to be a hardship for waterfront residents, says David C. Sobelsohn, secretary of the 6D Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
“This Safeway is not only the largest retailer in Southwest; it’s our only source of food. For many people without cars, there is really no other option,” Sobelsohn says. “We are looking for assurances that Safeway will do what it takes to make sure people in this neighborhood have access to food.”
The old store is slated to close on April 4. The new one will open on April 16, according to Craig M. Muckle, spokesman for Safeway’s Eastern Division.
Among those concerned is Tserha Gebreamlak, 41, who moved into the neighborhood a decade ago, partly because of the supermarket a few blocks from her apartment. She suffers from a chronic syndrome that often leaves her exhausted, so she tends to shop two or three times a week to cut down on number of items she has to lug at any one time.
“I moved here depending on Safeway,” she says. “Now I may have to take a train to Harris Teeter,” on Capitol Hill, near the Potomac Ave. Metro station.
Safeway also has another store near Kentucky Avenue SE. But both of those supermarkets are located on the other side of the Southeast Freeway, more than a mile away. That leaves a 7-Eleven, a few variety stores, and not much else by way of shopping options.
Sobelsohn and other residents would like the store to remain open and wonder whether Safeway executives are just trying to save a few bucks with the temporary shutdown.
But Muckle says the company needs the time to move existing equipment into the new store located directly behind the old store and demolish the old building. Besides, Muckle says, Safeway has already gone out of its way to keep its doors open during construction.
“This isn’t about creating a hardship. We want to do what’s right for the community,” says Muckle, pointing out that things could be much worse: Safeway’s Georgetown store has been closed for renovations for about a year now.
But those two neighborhoods make for a lopsided comparison. For starters, Georgetown is one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, while the area around the Safeway is still one of the District’s poorer sections despite new construction in recent years. Not only is there a Whole Foods Market a few blocks from the closed Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue NW, Georgetown residents are more mobile. According to 2000 Census figures, the most recent available, 83 percent of households in the Georgetown, Burleith, Hilldale area of the city owned cars, compared to 60 percent of households in the Southwest-Waterfront section of Ward 6.
“Southwest is an older, established neighborhood. It’s mostly seniors and may don’t drive,” says Clarence Brown, executive director of the District’s Office on Aging, who also happens to live next door to the Safeway. “Ten days, I can live with that. I go to Harris Teeter,” he says, “but it will be a concern for a lot of people.” (Safeway originally estimated a 10-day closure but revised that yesterday to12 days.)
“I’m still driving,” says Sandra Butler-Truesdale, 70, the secretary of the residents’ association of St. James Mutual coop building, on O Street SW. “I’m just concerned to know what those seniors will do and what plans are being made” to help them get to the supermarket during the closure.
Neighborhood residents have been pushing Safeway officials to discuss their plans to make sure no one goes hungry during to the 12-day closure. Shuttle bus service to another grocery store, moving a small retail operation into a temporary trailer on the property, or offering free delivery service are among the ideas buzzing around the neighborhood.
Muckle says Safeway officials are working on alternative “shopping opportunities” but declined to go into detail about what they might be.
“We are working on those and will have something in place by the ANC meeting in March,” Muckle says.
That’s not much comfort for Gebreamlak, who says she could probably cope for a couple of weeks but “it would be nice if I knew in advance, so I can make a plan.”
Anger over the closure just adds to resentment Southwest residents feel about the way they say the store has been run over the years, concerns that prompted the ANC to launch a special task force to work with store management to improve cleanliness, security and a litany of other issues.
“Items advertised on sale are so often out of stock that I have begun to think ‘on sale’ is a euphemism for ‘out of stock’ at that store,” Sobelsohn says.
Anger boiled last September at a community meeting to discuss Safeway’s application to sell beer and wine at the new store. Hundreds of residents packed the meeting and bombarded Safeway district managers with complaints, recalls Robert Sockwell, chair of the SW Safeway Taskforce. [CLARIFICATION: Sockwell emailed to say the meeting was called to discuss the problems at the store but the liquor license was also discussed.]
“The meeting probably never would have ended if we hadn’t cut off the questions,” says Sockwell, who also chaired the September meeting.
Susan Henriques-Payne has lived across the street from the store for 31 years but, like Brown, hasn’t shopped there in ages. only shops there on “an as needed basis.” Instead, she makes road trips to Virginia to buy her groceries. She’s looking forward to the prospect of shopping closer to home once the new store opens, but her expectations are low.
“It’s a culture of mediocrity,” she says. “They really aren’t customer focused.”
“I know we have to regain some credibility with the community,” Muckle says. “But this is in no way an attempt to place some hardship on them. We see the new store as an opportunity to turn the page completely.”