BY RUI MIAO
The Met Foodmarket at the corner of Prince and Mulberry Streets was packed on New Year’s Eve. Long checkout lines from all four registers extended into the aisles — an unusual scene at the longtime SoHo supermarket.
But there was a tinge of sadness in the air amid all the neighbors chitchatting and the “All Merchandise 25% Off” signs. After 25 years, the store would be closing its doors at 9 p.m. on the last day of 2016.
The hustle and bustle was its swansong.
“I’ve grown very close to this neighborhood, the people, and the community,” said Paul Fernandez, owner of the market. “I feel terrible.”
Unable to reach an agreement on lease renewal with Abington Properties, the building’s landlord, Fernandez has until Jan. 14 to clear everything out of the place.
Georgette Fleischer, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, said she would now have to travel to get even the bare necessities at decent prices.
“I would literally have to go half a mile, either northeast or northwest, in order to get an affordable half-gallon of milk,” she said.
Whatever’s left over will be taken to the Ideal Marketplace in Chelsea, which Fernandez also owns and where he promised to settle all the Met’s 32 former employees. On Dec. 29, Fleischer joined a dozen other local residents for a rally led by Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents the district. Braving the rain and chanting “Save our supermarket,” the group sought to pressure Abington Property to extend the lease – just two days ahead of the planned closure.
“The local grocery store that serves the people who live in the community would be taken away from us — at that point it’s no longer a neighborhood for residents anymore,” said Fleischer, a self-described “middle-income person.” She fears an affordable-food desert in the area, where boutiques and high-end markets have taken root. “That is not a neighborhood that’s really conducive to people who really live here and cook here.”
Kate Kodayachi, a longtime resident, lamented the store’s closing and said she would be even more dismayed if the space would become home to yet another upscale shop.
“Things change,”she said. “But it’s more important now than ever that people don’t forget — there just cannot be another boutique, cannot be another high-end, this is still a largely middle class, working-people community.”
Mamadou Diaolo, 35, whose first and only full-time job since he arrived New York from Guinea in West Africa nine years ago was to manage the Met’s dairy and frozen food departments, the closure was personal.
“I’ve met a lot of great people here, and they care about this supermarket,” said Diaolo, 35.
“I kind of feel bad for them,” he said of the store’s regulars. “For many this is the only supermarket they can afford in this neighborhood.”
The neighborhood, with one of the highest median incomes in the nation — $111,579 as of 2012, according to data from U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — is also home to multiple affordable housing units in the city, including 21 Spring Street and 10 Stanton Street, both of which are located within five blocks from the Met.
“Losing a supermarket is more than a retail story, it’s a story about changing a community,” said Terri Cude, chairwoman of Community Board 2.
Fernandez, whose rent had gone up from $7,000 to $90,000 since the store’s opening 25 years ago, said he spoke to Abington Property about remodeling the store into a “hybrid” that is still “able to provide the community with the essentials” but at the same time “a little more in line with the new SoHo.”
His suggestion was rejected. “I need at least 10 more years of lease to make that kind of investment,” Fernandez said. “They want a specialty food store, they don’t want a conventional market.”
Phone messages and emails requesting comment from Abington Property and Winick Realty were not returned.
At the rally, Chin lamented what the neighborhood’s changing texture was forcing on longtime residents.
“Despite near universal community support and a clear need for more supermarkets like this one, Abington Properties is abandoning their negotiations with the Met Supermarket with hopes that this space might become a more upscale operation,” she said.
In October, a number of leasing banners bearing the logo of Winick Realty Group appeared across Met’s facade at 251 Mulberry St. The banners are still there.
Long before that, leasing information advertising 78 feet of frontage, 12-foot ceilings and upscale commercial neighbors showed up on Winick’s website in February 2016. The detailed floor plans were coupled to a promised possession date of Jan. 1, 2017.
Shoppers, though, were taken by surprise when the closure was posted on the storefront last week.
According to Chin, there hasn’t yet been any takers for the property, and 251 Mulberry will likely stay vacant for the short term.
“Oh no,” said Jerrell Sablan, who lives on Hester Street and has shopped at the Met for several years. “Where should we go now?”