The exterior of the Morton Williams Supermarket, with a prominent red lettering that reads Morton Williams at the top of the building and the phrase The Fresh Marketplace beneath it.
The Morton Williams Supermarket is located at 130 Bleecker St. (Julia Smerling for WSN)
Julia Smerling

How a supermarket became the center of NYU’s relationship with the Village

Years of back-and-forth between local residents and the university over the future of a supermarket ended in an agreement saving the grocery store for at least the next 13 years.

For more than a decade, the fate of a local supermarket has stood at the heart of NYU’s relationship with Greenwich Village residents. Last month, a fight that began in 2012 ended in a victory for community advocates, who had long campaigned for a local Morton Williams supermarket to be allowed to stay on a university-owned lot. 

In the announcement, which came from NYU, Morton Williams and the city agency that had been poised to use the lot to build a school, the university and the city agreed to give the supermarket the option to stay at its location on Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place until 2036. The agreement came days before the deadline for the city agency, the New York City School Construction Authority, to choose whether to demolish the supermarket and build a public school on the lot.

The School Construction Authority gained the option to take NYU’s lot in an agreement during the 2012 approvals process for the university’s Core expansion plan, which includes the now-complete Paulson Center. 

“This agreement preserves an important asset in the community while still providing the SCA with the option to build a school at the site in the future,” said School Construction Authority president and CEO Nina Kubota in a recent press release. “I’d like to thank Mayor Adams and his team along with NYU for helping to broker a deal that will allow us to continue our focus on expanding and enhancing school infrastructure to meet the needs of New York City’s future generations of school children. This is truly a victory for all parties involved.”  

The School Construction Authority’s option to build the lot has been extended twice since the original 2012 agreement, and the agency declared its intent to build a school there in 2021, stoking concerns among residents who relied on the Morton Williams for access to food. Following years of advocacy from residents, NYU and local politicians pledged to keep the supermarket “at or near its current location” regardless of whether the School Construction Authority followed through on its plans to build a school. 

More recently, the community group Save Our Supermarket threatened to sue the university if the School Construction Authority took the option to build a school at the end of 2023. 

“We’re ecstatic that we finally won something from NYU, no one ever expected this but we’re glad it happened,” Judith Callet, Save Our Supermarket co-chair, said. “We’re happy for Morton Williams, and we’re happy for the community.”

How NYU came to own the Morton Williams lot

On Nov. 16, 2000, NYU purchased the space housing the last Grand Union supermarket in Manhattan, according to a WSN report at the time of the purchase. The Grand Union sat on the lot on Bleecker St. and LaGuardia Place, where the Morton Williams supermarket now stands. 

The Grand Union had declared bankruptcy, and sold the land to the university for $24 million — which would now be worth around $42 million — at auction. The stalking horse bidder, a party that agrees to making a base bid ahead of an auction, happened to be Morton Williams, which owns a chain of 15 supermarkets around Manhattan and had been hoping to convert the Grand Union into an additional location.

After the purchase, NYU indicated that it wanted to maintain a supermarket on the lot, but was also interested in the air rights to the space above the building. In a November 2000 WSN article announcing the purchase, university spokesperson John Beckman indicated that NYU was looking at options for a grocery store in the space.

“We’ve already begun taking proposals for a new food market on the site and we will keep everyone apprised of our progress,” Beckman had said.

The front page of WSN on Nov. 29, 2000. The headline for the front page story reads "N.Y.U. buys local market, plans new store."
(WSN archives, published on Nov. 29, 2000)

Avi Kaner, who owns and operates various Morton Williams in New York City, said that Morton Williams had told NYU it would be interested in operating the market whether or not it won the auction in an April 2023 statement to WSN. According to Kaner, NYU and the supermarket entered a lease agreement for the first time around 24 years ago.

“Upon winning the auction, NYU asked Morton Williams to immediately take over operation of the store to prevent any disruption to the community, which it did on a handshake,” Kaner had said.

The beginning of the conflict

Before the university’s Core expansion plan there was NYU 2031, an ambitious expansion initiative that included four new university buildings on two superblocks between West Third Street and Houston Street. Among these was the “Zipper Building,” which later became the Paulson Center. 

The original plan, announced in 2010 by former NYU president John Sexton, saw pushback from local residents concerned that the planned buildings would damage the character of the neighborhood. Despite receiving New York City Council approval in 2012, the plan eventually hit a snag in 2014, when a lawsuit brought by various community groups blocked it from moving forward

“It’s clear that NYU had a history of moving forward without listening,” Sexton told the New York Times at the time of the 2010 announcement. “What this process has allowed us to do is take advantage of the wisdom that’s out there. There are some people just trying to make reputations attacking NYU. But there’s a lot of wisdom in the community.”

Despite the 2031 expansion coming to a halt, the agreement the university had made with the School Construction Authority during its approvals process remained, meaning the agency still had the option to take the lot on Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place to build a public school. In 2022, national, state and city politicians called for NYU to provide space for both a school and the supermarket. 

In earlier plans for its expansion, NYU had included space for the Morton Williams in the bottom floor of the Paulson Center, but the university eventually changed those plans, and said there was no space available for the supermarket in the building. NYU has said that it made the change because it did not believe the School Construction Authority had an interest in building a school on the lot.

Despite having the option, the School Construction Authority reportedly admitted that it did not currently have a need for a public school where the lot is located, according to The Village Sun. For more than a decade, Community Board 2, a body representing communities in parts of lower Manhattan, had pushed for the school to be built. Back in 2011, CB2 had said the school was a “very interesting” prospect, and appeared more concerned that NYU would keep the lot if the School Construction Authority did not build a school.

“First, it is unclear what kind of school our district needs to meet projected populations

in 10 to 20 years,” a letter from CB2 to the Department of City Planning read. “Second, we have no assurances that SCA even wants this property, or if they have the resources in their capital plans to be able to develop it. And third, the Draft Scope states that if SCA is not ultimately willing or able to take over the site, then it will revert to NYU. This is of grave concern.”

What happens now?

In 2021, NYU had renewed its lease with Morton Williams for another 20 years, albeit with a demolition clause that would allow it to destroy the supermarket with a year’s notice. Under the 2023 agreement, Morton Williams’ lease — which previously consisted of a 10-year term as well as two optional five-year terms — is guaranteed to retain the original 10-year term and one of the five-year terms, according to Kaner.

“We have worked closely for the past two years, with NYU, the city, SCA, community board and elected leaders,” Kaner wrote in a recent statement to WSN. “Most importantly, the community grassroots effort made this agreement possible. It is truly a win for everyone in the community. The supermarket is preserved, and the city retains the option to build a school in the future.”

According to the agreement, which was obtained by WSN, the second five-year term will also be available to the supermarket if the School Construction Authority does not take the option to build a school on the lot by February 2025. If the School Construction Authority does decide to build a school by then, NYU will use the demolition clause in the supermarket’s lease and the agency will start construction on the school between February 2036 and February 2038. 

In the case that the School Construction Authority does not exercise its option to use the lot after the first five-year extension is used, the supermarket can choose to stay on the lot until February 2041. 

“This is a really good outcome for the community, because they are able to keep a community asset that’s clearly beloved,” NYU spokesperson Kyle Kimball told WSN in a recent statement. “It’s good for the School Construction Authority and the community members who want a school, because it retains their option to build there if and when the need arises.”

Contact Carmo Moniz at [email protected]

Developed for web by Manasa Gudavalli.

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  • J

    JASApr 6, 2024 at 1:37 pm

    Excellent article; well-researched and written!