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Sustainability vs. Capitalism in SE Portland: report-back from New Seasons meeting

About a dozen people showed up at the Red and Black Cafe to talk about the upcoming City hearing on the zoning changes being requested by the New Seasons market, which wants to open a new store in SE Portland. The hearing will be at 9:00 am on Monday, August 18, and many people in the neighborhood have expressed interest in going. A surprise (at least to me) guest there was Brian Rohter, president of New Seasons, who has been reading about the opposition to his plans on portland indymedia. He described the website as being "full of lies". While it seems that some of the information about the proposed store that has appeared on the site has been technically incorrect, Rohter offered no substantive responses to the deeper concerns that many people have. Indeed, he came off as a typical politician -- slick and disengenous. His words aimed to please, and for those people who would rather be pleased than face the reality of modern existence, I'm sure they would be very convincing. However, I and others there were able to see through his veil.

[ No New Seasons campaign ]

The first part of the meeting concentrated on the purpose it was billed for: to learn more about how to present your concerns at a city land use hearing. Experienced community members shared their knowledge. Basically, such meetings boil down like this:

First, there's an introduction, when the business of the meeting is announced. Next, the city staff makes a presentation based on its recommendations. (Those recommendations were released yesterday. More on that later.) Next, the applicant (in this case, New Seasons) makes its case. Then comes the comment period, which is broken down into two parts: testimony from those who support, then testimony from those who oppose. These people may speak for up to three minutes. Finally, the applicant is allowed a rebuttal. At many hearings, the City staff then makes its decision. However, if anyone asks for a seven day extension for comments, it is usually granted, and a community activist who will be attending is planning to request that extension. So in the case of New Seasons, the decisions about the zoning changes will likely not be made that day.

The community member trainers at the Red and Black meeting stressed that the land use hearing will not be like a City Council hearing; that is, such events are legal in nature, not political. Any comments must address the technical merits or demerits of the application, and must be backed up with evidence. Any comments that fall outside these bounds will be immaterial to the City staff. Clearly, this arrangement stacks the deck in favor of developers who have the money to put together fancy presentations or hire experts, and against regular people who are concerned about quality-of-life but who might not be legally astute. Examples of relevant topics are traffic, environmental impact, and neighborhood "character".

I was hoping that this meeting would turn into a brainstorming session where concerned residents could go through the New Seasons application with the more experienced people and come up with some specific things to say at the hearing. However, the presence of New Seasons president Brian Rohter made such work impossible. Why did he show up at the meeting if its stated purpose was to recieve training on how to present one's concerns at a City hearing? Surely, he already knows how to do that, or has staff who will be doing that for him. His own claim was that he was there as "a member of the community" who wants to hear from people about his plans. I believe he was there in the hopes of meeting the people behind the elusive No New Seasons campaign. He would've been stupid not to come for that reason anyway, and I don't think he's stupid.

Whether or not any NoNewSeasonsers were there, Rohter heard some of the concerns that people in the community have. He evaded most difficult topics skillfully. "He didn't answer any questions," one activist remarked afterwards. "He's a politician." Rohter's body language, though, gave him away. Once people asked him hard stuff, he crossed his arms and legs, frowned, and sipped from his beer glass nervously, even after it was empty. He didn't always keep his cool (perhaps in part due to the lack of air conditioning at the Red and Black) but those moments were rare.

Rohter said that claims on indymedia and elsewhere that dumpsters would be put in the lot where the duplex on Division currentl sits are false. He said they would be around on the 20th Ave. side, where they are currently. When asked for indymedia readers whether the dumpsters would be compacters or be locked, he said that none of the dumpsters at his other stores are compacters or have locks, though that could change at the new store.

In response to the suggestion that he instead open a store out on 82nd Avenue, which is bereft of whole foods stores, and build a new market there, Rohter said that New Seasons cannot afford to have an unprofitable store there. In asking this question, activists were trying to highlight the fact that Rohter is concerned more about profit than about providing healthy food to people who want it, and his answer confirmed that fact. He said their market studies showed that a Southeast Portland store would be profitable but declined to share projections about how many customers they were expecting, saying that this informtion was "proprietary". So when it came down to it, he was unwilling to share a piece of information that is essential for people in the neighborhood to know in order to make up their minds about the store.

Audience reaction to Rohter was mixed. Some people in attendance were in favor of the New Seasons store and some weren't. Some people could see through his superficiality and some preferred to be seduced. Some wanted to take Rohter on and make him defend his plans and some wanted to avoid "confrontation".

For me, the meeting highlighted yet again the deeper nature of our problems here in industrial society. Here we are, living unsustainable lifestyles, warming up the globe with our cars and factories, destroying the biology of other living things with genetic modification, and killing people by the thousands in other countries to keep it going, and who wants to do anything about it? I mean really do anything about it? Are you, in Camus' words, on the side of the victim or the exucutioner? When the earth is on the chopping block and your species is holding the axe, you have a responsibility to try to stop that blade. Concerning yourself primarily with personal profit (as Rohter is) or with how many shopping "choices" you have (as some SE Portland residents are) is to support the executioner. New Seasons is a large store that will increase traffic, decrease housing in the immediate area, and very possibly put the People's Co-op out of business. Now, I have no illusions that the People's Co-op is going to save the world. Of course not. However, a culture based on the values espoused by People's just might. Their motto is "Food for People, not for Profit", and their model is about sustainability, not capitalism. Additionally, People's has helped create a community of people whose work and lives are focused on bringing sustainability to many aspects of life, whether with green building, biodiesel cars, community gardening, or many other things. This is the type of community that sides with the victim, not the executioner, and it is the type of community that will never be built by a profit-driven institution like New Seasons.

The battle to save the world from the capitalist machines is being fought on many fronts, and at many scales, all over the world. One small piece of the struggle is happening in Southeast Portland right now; on one side are people trying their best to build and protect sustainable alternatives; on the other is a wealthy slick man who wants to make more money, and some well-off white people who want more "choices". I know some readers of this site don't take this struggle seriously, and perhaps that's because they haven't experienced the best of People's, or because they are in denial about how big fish vs. little fish battles usually end up, or because they think SE is already gentrified and not worth saving. To all of these people, I say: please think about it more. There aren't many cool places in the U.S., and we're going to lose one of the best unless we come to its defense.

BTW, Rohter drove away from the meeting in a hefty pick-up truck.

Say NO to New Seasons!

The City hearing about New Seasons zoning requests is on Monday, August 18, at 9:00 a.m., in the third floor hearing room of the Bureau of Development Services, at 1900 SW Fourth Ave, in downtown Portland. Watch portland indymedia for more details...


Hope for the movement 14.Aug.2003 01:44

salsado

This battle is one that i think will define SE. If we ever have any hope of making real change in the world we'll have to start at home. If we can't win the battles in the circles around us then what hope do we have of ever changing the world. One thing that really bothers me is that there seems to be a debate on if there is an issue or not. For the people who will lose there homes, for the work that will be all thrown away, for the those of us who will lose a place that we love there is an issue. I put a call out to everyone that I have stood with to stand with me and the people of SE that oppose NS. Let fight this toghether and build community toghether. We will not let someone walk into SE and just take it away. So whether you love NS or you hate it, understand that this fight is not about choosing one store over another it is about choosing community over corprate intrests. This is CLASS-WAR!!!!

info 14.Aug.2003 02:01

informer

New Seasons will never set up a new store except in a neighborhood which has already been warmed up by a store like People's Co-op.

Just like trendy boutiques follow about ten years behind, and dispossess, succesful counter-culture neighborhoods.

Better location for NS 14.Aug.2003 07:34

resident

I would have liked to see NS open a store on Division somewhere between 60 and 82nd. A store on 20 is not really needed because there Nature's and People's are already serving that need. There is NOTHING on Division further out. No grocery stores whatsoever. Residents of that neighborhood HAVE to drive to get groceries. A store like NS would be more than welcome there.

good point from Resident 14.Aug.2003 08:39

nathTnorman

My wife and I just moved from 17th and Clinton to 50th and Division. Yeah, there are no grocery stores on/near Division from 50th to 82nd. It would be great if New Seasons would build a store somewhere in there. I agree that another very similar type grocery store doesn't seem to be needed on Division and 20th as there is a Nature's 10 blocks away.

Things I am thinking about... 14.Aug.2003 08:41

Fenbar1

1. The footprint for the NS store will make it the largest commercial building on Division St in that area. Approving the proposed zoning changes for NS Market to create such a place that is out of character for the neighborhood makes it contrary to the Comprehensive Plan of the City of Portland. That is what I will say at the hearing next Monday.

2. There will be a significantly increased presence of cars going to that store, which will lead to increased air pollution, traffic fatalities, noise, and stress in general. This is also contrary to the Comprehensive Plan of the City of Portland. I will also say this at the hearing on Monday.

3. For all the folks who are so interested in this issue, I hope you will take the time to step away from your computer and go to the hearing and voice your point of view. Monday 9AM 1900 SW 4th Ave Suite 3000. See how decisions are made in our City.

Extra things from my head...

4. Looking at trends in the natural food industry, it would be fair to predict that within a decade New Seasons will sell out to some other food store chain, either closing their store or selling it for a WalMart Junior to move in.

5. Peoples will not go out of business if all those activists who truly care about values like cooperation, democratic ownership, and community control put their cash down according to those values.

hungry on Mt Tabor 14.Aug.2003 09:05

Mt Tabor resident

There is a huge hole in this area that could use a decent grocery store. There used to be Albertsons at 82nd and Division and it is long gone. The nearest stores are Fred (ok) at 39 and Hawthorne, Food 4 Less (yuck) at 82nd and Powell, Safeway (boring) at 39th and Powell. That is it besides a few crummy 7-11 types. I would die for a decent store to be able to walk or bike to. Somebody is going to wake up and make a lot of money and do something good for this neighborhood.

To "Hungry on Mt. Tabor" 14.Aug.2003 09:30

gerry

What about the Daily Grind on 41st and Hawthorne? It an organic, whole foods store that sells no meat. They upgraded their produce section a year or so ago and have the best prices in town on organics; (a guy I know from People's was working there a few weeks ago and marveled at their prices). The people that work there are totally cool, and it's locally owned (though I must admit that the owner, a soulless cardboard factory magnate, uses it as a tax write-off). Plus, they just re-opened the deli and the people running it couldn't be nicer or more attentive to customer concerns. They make the best no oil dressings around and put cold-pressed flax oil out at the salad bar for free. They have to drop the tablecloths and new agey music that plays now and then, but still, they're doing a great job there.

And no, I don't work at the Daily Grind. My wife and I shop at People's to the extent we can afford, and then supplement some of People's more expensive items at the Grind. For what it's worth, I understand the opposition to New Seasons for gentrification and other reasons, but I don't think it will hurt People's; their clientele is very loyal and shops there for reasons beyond just price.

Wild Oats 14.Aug.2003 09:53

not corporate

What's interesting to me is that if New Seasons had tried to move in several years ago when Nature's wasn't a part of Wild Oats, Nature's would have been in on the fight to keep NS out. Now that Nature's is a big national corporate machine, they don't give a damn about one store losing profits by another moving in on their territory. Who cares if Division Wild Oats shuts down? They've got plenty more all over the west to pick up the slack! And what will move into the vacant Nature's space? A Walgreens? A strip mall?

I don't trust Rohter 14.Aug.2003 12:55

comments

(((In response to the suggestion that he instead open a store out on 82nd Avenue, which is bereft of whole foods stores, and build a new market there, Rohter said that New Seasons cannot afford to have an unprofitable store there. In asking this question, activists were trying to highlight the fact that Rohter is concerned more about profit than about providing healthy food to people who want it, and his answer confirmed that fact. He said their market studies showed that a Southeast Portland store would be profitable but declined to share projections about how many customers they were expecting, saying that this informtion was "proprietary". So when it came down to it, he was unwilling to share a piece of information that is essential for people in the neighborhood to know in order to make up their minds about the store. )))

If Rohter thinks 82nd would be unprofitable, then he does not think New Seasons is capable of creating new customers and so putting the store in the 20's SE will obviously draw upon existing customers of both Peoples and Natures. The idea that there is not going to be a significant impact on existing stores is absurd.

As the smallest store, with the least financial muscle, Peoples is going to suffer. Peoples just had their expansion which put the store into debt and so it is vulnerable to sales drops due to the New Seasons store going in. If you look at patterns in other cities when such big stores go in near small popular community stores like Peoples, the record indicates that the little store usually closes after a year or two.

Rohter is most definately willing to risk the loss of a great resource and community store like Peoples for his own profit. I do not respect the man for this reason.

Natures Doesn't Exist 18.Aug.2003 11:00

Voice of Reason

There is no Natures on Division any more. Nature's has dropped the fascade of being a local store and adopted its national corporate chain's identity - Wild Oats. Like the old Natures, New Season's seems to be focusing on buying locally. Its still a corporate chain of course, but I see no reason to worry about whether it steals customers from Wild Oats.

Frankly I doubt it will have any impact on People's. It may even encourage people to shop at the coop more by providing a local source for things that people can't get there.

The impact on the neighborhood is a different question. There has always been a shopping center on that corner - its not clear to me that any other likely uses of that property are going to generate less traffic.

If New Season's isn''t a good idea - what businesses at that site would be better?The traffic on Clinton is largely driven by the restaurants and other businesses at 28th. I think those businesses are good for the neighborhood - but then I don't have to live near them. I'm not sure a restaurant or other use is going to be better than a grocery store.

I do think the neighborhood ought to extract some benefits - including improved pedestrian crossings on Division, bike lanes and traffic reduction plans from New Seasons. That could include discounts for those who don't use parking, bus passes for employees, secure bike parking, improved transit and traffic calming on adjacent streets. They could also be required to provide shade trees, "green" storm water management, urban habitat, community space and other amenities on the property. One thing that would be useful is a bike path beind the buildking that connects to Clinton and 21st without having to ride past the parking lot entrances and through the intersection at 21st and Division.

I'm a neighbor and I like New Seasons 19.Aug.2003 14:50

Andy Davis

I live about six blocks from this store. I'm a People's member. I plan to continue shopping at People's, but I welcome New Seasons to the hood. NS is not corporate; it's a small privately-held chain based here in Portland. They have more of a commitment to organic and local produce than any other for-profit grocer. If people want to complain about something, why not Starbucks going in less than a block away and closer to the Red and Black Cafe than NS will be to People's. BTW - Wild Oats/Natures really sucks and will soon be driven out of business at the Division locale by the NS. Wild Oats is the corporate bully in the hood, not NS.