In a zombie-like transformation, vacant NYC storefronts are reborn as stores without customers, cashiers, or clear signage. What are these places plastered with opaquely branded names like “Jokr” and…not much else? Former Manhattan Borough President and current City Council Member Gale Brewer intends to find out, as her office investigates the legality behind the recent influx of 15-minute delivery app warehouses masquerading as storefronts throughout the city.
“They’re not street friendly or consumer friendly,” Brewer told W42ST. Speed delivery apps like GoPuff, Jokr, Fridge No More, and Gorillas have set up shop in over 150 locations throughout town, promising lightning-fast procurement and delivery of groceries and household goods. To meet these impossibly fast delivery windows (which can be as short as 10 minutes), startups have taken over empty storefronts all over NYC, offering city dwellers the proximity and convenience of not having to schlep bags on the subway. “Our cloud stores are located in the middle of your neighborhood with a delivery radius of less than one mile,” states Fridge No More’s homepage.
Seizing on the deluge of commercial vacancies left by the pandemic, venture capital-funded delivery apps were able to secure favorably short lease agreements with easier opt-outs and cancellations than for most NYC businesses. Now, landlords who “wanted the ability to cancel the lease because it wasn’t their ideal tenant” are hoping to cut ties with delivery apps, said broker Yoni Hader to the New York Post.
Brewer, whose district covers W54th St through the Upper West Side, first noticed the storefronts popping up around town, “taking over grocery store spaces citywide, like they did on Long Island City.” In Hell’s Kitchen, a shuttered grocery store — Merci Market on W42nd bw 8/9th Ave which closed during the pandemic — became a fulfillment center and a Walgreens that had been vacant for years on W57th Street east of 9th Avenue has become a local hub for GoPuff. These and other fulfillment centers, Brewer argues, are zoning themselves as public grocery stores when even “the people who work there call it a warehouse” and not a store, said Brewer.
Supermarkets, delis, and bodegas have citywide specific zoning requirements that include clear pricing and signage, scales for the weighing and pricing of produce, as well as an obligation to accept cash sales. Brewer and fellow City Council Member Christopher Marte visited several centers around town where they were either unable to enter the store or make a cash purchase. Additionally, some centers have adopted tinted windows or coverings which violate transparency laws, though Brewer notes that these vary by neighborhood.
And there are issues that extend beyond the store, said Brewer, noting that some fulfillment centers store e-bikes with lithium ion batteries inside their buildings. “If I lived above a warehouse where they stored batteries, I’d be a little concerned. There have been some recent fires in the area, so I’d be concerned,” she said.
Brewer’s office also meets frequently with delivery workers to ensure both their safety and the safety of pedestrians, both of which she feels are put at risk by a pressure to fulfill short delivery windows with high-speed e-bikes — “I don’t know how you can follow the rules of the road if you’re being told by your boss that you have to complete a delivery in 15 minutes,” said Brewer. “It’s absurd.”
The Council Member’s office contacted the Department of City Planning, the Department of Buildings, NY State Liquor Authority, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to voice concerns over the zoning, safety, and quality-of-life issues presented by the influx of fulfillment centers. “I believe that these centers fall under Use Group 16D — which is only permitted in certain areas in Manhattan (areas with M1, M2, M3 and C8 zoning). However, these sites are opening in areas where that zoning does not apply. In addition, some of these establishments sell beer, requiring SLA licenses that don’t seem to be publicly displayed,” said the letter.
Brewer’s office added, “While there continue to be food deserts in Manhattan, these companies are not serving those areas; instead, most are opening where there are already many grocery options. They deaden our streetscapes, as windows are sometimes papered over and there is no ability to actually enter and shop, thereby reducing foot traffic, which ultimately impacts adjacent small businesses.”
Andrew Rudansky, Press Secretary for the DOB, acknowledged the ongoing challenge within the city landscape. “These types of quick-service fulfillment centers are a new type of business in New York City, and they are not specifically mentioned in existing city zoning regulations,” he said. “We have been in contact with elected officials about this issue, and we are actively working with our partners at other agencies to explore the appropriate zoning districts for these types of establishments.”
Brewer told W42ST that her office is working on a comprehensive map of current fulfillment centers to keep residents informed. She advises that if you experience issues with a center where you suspect there are zoning violations, to call 311, a city council member’s office, or the mayor’s office. “Ask if it’s a legal establishment or not — the more calls, the better” to make the issue known, said Brewer.
In the end, Brewer’s biggest concern is over the lack of value said fulfillment centers bring to the local economy. “They are not a contributor to the commercial strip,” said Brewer. “They don’t interact with residents. They don’t add to the neighborhood. They add to the bottom line of Silicon Valley, VC firms, and hedge funds, and they are a real competitor to our local grocery stores and bodegas, who I love and want to succeed.”
Hell’s Kitchen residents would agree. Writer and HK local Tom Fervoy, who profiled deli owner Wally Alkandi for W42ST, spoke to him recently about the impact of 15-minute delivery services on his businesses. “We thought Fresh Direct was a punch to the gut, but now it’s even worse. All these delivery platforms are killing our grocery business… I’m talking for my business, but I’m sure all the other small deli guys are being affected as well,” said Alkandi.
Fervoy concurs, adding that the addition of fulfillment centers could threaten the vitality of the city’s corner deli’s — “which are a life’s blood for every NYC-er’s last-minute, 24/7 needs. A way of life,” he said. As sterile warehouses lay claim to the life-blood of the city block, it remains to be seen if city officials will be able to beat back the tide of the zombie-grocery apocalypse.