New London PZC chair criticizes location for proposed food pantry
New London ― An all-volunteer organization wants to consolidate its two small food pantries into a larger space at 573 Bank St. where residents could use carts to grab fresh produce and other healthy food options for free.
The New London Area Food Pantry, which works to combat food insecurity and limited access to nutritional food, said the pantry would operate like a small grocery market.
While discussing the group’s application for a special permit Thursday night, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Barry Levine said he liked the concept but not its location across from the new upscale apartment complex known as the The Docks. The commission also extensively questioned whether the market would have enough parking.
“Right across the street from you is a piece of development on land vacant for 40 years and finally had a developer invest $35 million dollars to put market-rate housing that is high quality,” said Levine.
Scott Ramsy, the president of NLAFP, said the organization has been in the city for 40 years and currently serves the community, alongside Food for the People, from the basement of the Opportunities Industrialization Center on Truman Street. It also has a location on State Street with its partner the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut.
Ramsy said there is a need to address the rising food insecurity in New London County which is at 17%, according to a 2020 report, cited in a CT Mirror article. He said food insecurity in the city rose to almost 30% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ramsy said the market would be “client-choice,” an alternative to pre-bagging food items which allows people to pick out the items they want.
The pantry gets its food from Connecticut Foodshare, the Gemma Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, local farms, individuals and organizations.
Beth Boehm, of Connecticut Foodshare, spoke in support of the application. Boehm said giving people a choice promotes dignity and provides them a humane experience. She said food is wasted much less if clients get to choose it while offering an opportunity to improve nutrition.
“When people are in need of help, it is not easy to ask for help,” she said.
Boehm said there are similar “client-choice” food pantries at Alliance for Living in New London and St. Vincent de Paul in Norwich.
Commission chair has issue with downtown location
Levine said his problem with the application is the location. He said the city’s 2017 Plan of Conservation and Development strives to lessen the number of social service delivery facilities in the downtown.
Ramsy argued throughout the meeting the proposed pantry is not in the downtown area, using the map in the 2017 plan as reference.
Levine said the commission has denied other social service agencies on Bank Street further from the central downtown district than the pantry because it is the main entry into the city. He said the commission has not wanted to have such agencies on Bank Street or in the downtown.
Levine said having a social agency on the street could develop a cluster. He said “one attracts another, attracts another.”
Ramsy said he has heard this same discussion with a number of properties in the city. From his perspective, the proposed location is ideal due to its proximity to the patrons it serves.
Levine said as much as he likes what the agency is doing, he is not in support of it. He said the land use commission cannot specify how the business will be operated or that it will have a layout that looks like a small supermarket. He was also concerned that if the building was sold, the new owner could take advantage of the special permit NLAFP is requesting.
NLAFP’s application seeks to use the building as a food pantry warehouse. A food pantry is not a separate allowed use in city regulations but a warehouse is allowed in the district. This means a special permit is required.
The commission also discussed the proposed parking for the project. The building’s parking lot accommodates parking for two adjacent buildings owned by the landlord. After taking into account the buildings’ different uses and multiple calculations, the city planner determined there were 49 spaces but 50 are required.
Deciding that more information is needed, the commission tabled its discussion until its next meeting.