grocery aisle, stock

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New Orleans officials could impose a moratorium on “small box” stores, discount and dollar-store retailers that the New Orleans City Council has tasked the City Planning Commission with studying over the next two months.

The CPC will look at stores between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet that don’t offer fresh food — excluding gas station stores and pharmacies that sell groceries, which puts the study’s focus squarely on discount stores, many of which have populated the New Orleans area over the last decade.

Following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu and former District E Councilmember James Gray welcomed small box retail as a sign of new investment to the district and as a sign to other prospective developers that “the East is open for business.”

But residents — and new District E Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen — have questioned whether those are the kinds of retail projects the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East should be attracting, particularly in areas where lower-income families don’t have better access to fresh food retailers and grocery stores or the transportation to get them to other neighborhoods oversaturated with those kinds of businesses.

Residents also have complained about the optics of those kinds of stores, which East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission president Sylvia Scineaux-Richard said drive away would-be residents.

“We don’t want to be branded as a discount community,” she said at the CPC’s Sept. 11 meeting. “People we’re trying to lure to our community have brands they want to protect.”

Scineaux-Richard said the city should instead attract “the kind of shopping that addresses different types of layers of shopping.” East resident Dawn Hebert added that the stores seemingly open only in lower-income areas, “which we are not.”

Health workers said food choices and diets often reflect availability and the kinds of foods immediately available to shoppers. Elisa Munoz, director of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, supports more full-service grocery stores in areas saturated with small-box stores and suggested officials also consider requirements for discount stores to stock fresh food.

In June, Nguyen prompted the CPC to determine whether there need to be caps on the density of small box stores and to study the impact of their proliferation weighed against the lack of fresh food retailers in the area.

But critics have argued that those stores are often the only affordable option in an increasingly unaffordable city, where a Dollar General or Dollar Store could be a lifeline not just to pick up basics like paper towels but to also stock a pantry.

The study has renewed discussions about the overabundance of grocery stores in parts of Uptown and Mid-City, where two large grocery retailers face one another on opposite sides of the street, compared to the long wait for similar projects in other areas of the city more than a decade after Katrina.

Commissioners asked for a breakdown of the number of small-box stores per City Council district and whether there needs to be a special zoning district applied to those retailers.

Commissioner Jason Hughes asked the CPC staff to also examine whether New Orleans East is "impacted by these types of establishments more than in any other neighborhood."

The CPC is accepting public comment through 5 p.m. Nov. 5. The CPC staff will release its report and recommendations Nov. 6, and the CPC will take them up Nov. 13.