Residents Seek to Shutter Store While City Seeks to Improve It
Some neighbors of the Old Town Grocery say it's a blight on the community attracting nefarious activity while the city says it is working to help improve the store in fairness to its owners and to improve the community.
A one-story, squat grayish building sits at 809 Pendleton St. There are bars on the windows and no signage out front, making it unclear what a patron might find when walking through the door and past the neon “Open” sign in the window.
It is called, on its business license, Old Town Grocery and Carry Out.
But the neighbors in this rapidly gentrifying quadrant of the city by the James Bland redevelopment project are crying foul. This is no grocery, they say. It primarily has been selling cigarettes, alcohol and a few sundried food items along with paraphernalia for pot smokers.
Residents living near the Old Town Grocery on Pendleton Street are circulating a petition to have the establishment shut down, prompted by recent reports of criminal activity at the establishment.
As of this week, 101 supporters of the idea have signed the petition, which seeks to have city officials: “permanently close the store due to the nefarious activities it is bringing into the neighborhood.”
The neighbors say the store is a “nuisance” and a locus of criminal activity. Police recently raided the site, revealing a cache of stolen goods thought to be taken from homes in the Rosemont and Old Town neighborhoods.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recently banned the store from participating in the state’s food stamp program due to alleged illegal trafficking in Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.
Neighbor Philip Moffat told Patch he believes that “any small business is the backbone of the American economy, but they need to comply with our laws and community values.”
He says the store initially advertised itself as a grocery store selling organic produce but lately he's only seen a "few rotten bananas and other limited produce.”
City Manager Rashad Young said city inspections as recent within the last two weeks show that Old Town Grocery is complying with city requirements to operate as a grocery store and after recent scrutiny it has “met more of the standards of a grocery store.”
“There’s been a lot of discussion here in City Hall on our level about how to respond” to these issues, he said. “We don’t have a mechanism to say we can go in and close the store… but we have to operate in balance and fairness to the store too. We have to walk a balance here that’s legal and appropriate in how we approach this with this business and other businesses.”
Moffat, a lawyer who also sits on the city’s Board of Architectural Review for the Parker-Gray historic district, says: “There’s a lot of tension in the area right now. … The city has been pushing redevelopment of this area. …The [new] units have been selling but that could change if residents continue to vocalize the concerns they’ve been having.”
The building sits within the 8.5 acres within the Braddock East planning area and is part of Parker-Gray.
City Council in 2008 approved a plan to demolish 194 public housing units as part of the James Bland redevelopment and construct 379 new units, of which one-third will be public housing and the remainder market rate units. The five-block redevelopment is occurring in five phases with phase two construction completed next summer and phase three now underway.
In 2011, a group of neighbors opposed the store’s application to sell alcoholic beverages, saying in a protest letter to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that the new owner opened the store promising organic and fair trade products. “Old Town Grocery and Carry Out is a far cry what was advertised to our neighborhood” with cigarettes being the most prominent items for sale, they said.
The signatories also said the area is just beginning to “enjoy a renaissance” after having endured years of crimes.
“Allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages in this residential community would encourage loitering, endanger children’s safety, send the wrong message to other families who may be considering moving to or investing in the community,” wrote the protestors.
Despite their protests, the store was granted a liquor license. On Monday, City Manager Young told Patch that the city supports citizens who seek to have the store’s alcoholic beverage license revoked in light of the recent criminal activity associated with the store.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in the situation where the worst fears of the community seem to be playing back,” Young said.
City documents show Bitaywork Abate as the store’s translator and cashier for the store’s manager, Abebech Abate, during the February 2011 proceeding to get the go-ahead to sell alcohol. Bitaywork Abate, 25, was arrested in August on one count of receiving stolen property.
In 2010, a letter from Planning and Zoning to the applicant for the store’s business license, Ms. Abebech Abate, gave its approval for the operation of a retail grocery store at 809 Pendleton St.
The grocery store was granted a license based upon several conditions, including no alcohol sales and no live entertainment. It also said the store must sell items including fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, breads and dairy products. The city said it could require a special use permit, or SUP, if the store deviated from that list and then would be considered more of a “convenience store” rather than a grocery.
Young said this week that because the business is classified as a grocery store and doesn’t have to meet the more stringent requirements of a convenience store, “our ability to influence what it looks like and how it’s maintained is a lot different.”
He said current requirements say it must be habitable and structurally safe and if it is that, it can operate.
Vice Mayor Kerry Donley said during a discussion of the store at a City Council meeting last week that he's asked the city's Planning and Zoning Department to develop a text amendment addressing this broader problem.
“Either you’re grocery store or a convenience store," he said. "The text amendment would go back to the old way of defining a convenience store as opposed to a grocery store that’s centered more on size and type of operation and that convenience stores would then be governed by an SUP. That would then give us the zoning tool that we probably lack in this situation. It would give us enforcement to make sure these places are an asset to the city and an asset to the community.”
Councilwoman Alicia Hughes said council members had received hundreds of emails expressing concern about the store and added that there's an "ABC issue" being investigated at the store.
City Manager Young said this week that the city would review if there had been any sales at the store of alcohol to minors.
“We’ll use every tool and resource to act accordingly," Mayor Bill Euille said. " … I think we’re going to have to wait, but of course not with a blind eye.”
Some of the store’s neighbors are scheduled to meet with city staff this week to further discuss this issue. Other neighbors spoke with Patch, but declined to offer their name for publication, citing safety reasons. Store staff also declined to comment.
Del Ray Patch editor Drew Hansen contributed to this report.