By Tobias Romein
— How many Albert Heijns does it take to make a neighbourhood perfect? Apparently, two is not enough, as the newest addition to Amsterdam Science Park’s supermarket ensemble suggests.
On March 21, Albert Heijn Science Park, located close to the intersection between Molukkenstraat and Carolina MacGillavrylaan, opened its doors. It spans 2300 square meters, making it the biggest neighbourhood-store in Amsterdam. Although opinions of other store owners are critical towards the impact that the supermarket will have on their businesses, the management sees the new branch as a contribution to the neighbourhood.
Karim Triki, store manager of the new Albert Heijn, believes in the positive impact the supermarket will have. “We want to be an asset to the local community. We are not just trying to be commercial; we want to play a specific social role. We would like to collaborate, for example, with different parties in the neighbourhood, like the local gym or local restaurants. It would be a win-win situation”, he says.
According to Triki, this objective is different from the older Albert Heijn that is also located on Molukkenstraat, close to Javaplein. “That store is aimed at drawing people in from the street. We are more a store where customers come to do large-scale groceries. That is the advantage of having so much space: we can do more for the neighbourhood. People see it as a family trip; they come here with children, and stay for about an hour on average”, says Triki.
When asked whether he thinks the new Albert Heijn will take away customers from the small supermarkets in the Molukkenstraat, Triki says: “No, I don’t think we take away customers form the smaller Turkish supermarkets. If you look at it, we are an asset to the street. People come cycling to our store, and they cycle past all those other shops. There is more traffic in the Molukkenstraat. It really is not that bad. And our economical contribution to the neighbourhood is about more than just traffic. We offer 150 jobs at this facility, and 90 percent of those jobs are filled by people that live in and around the Indische buurt.”
Triki does not deny that some businesses might be negatively influenced by the presence of the new Albert Heijn. He says he is open for discussion. “I would definitely like to talk to someone who says their business suffers from us. It is not our target to destroy smaller businesses.”
One does not have to travel very far to find someone who sees their economic existence threatened by the new supermarket. M. El Jouhri, owner of supermarket ‘El Jawhara’ on Molukkenstraat, says he does not like the growing number of large-chain supermarkets in the neighbourhood. “I really notice the new Albert Heijn a lot. To be honest, I find it odd that the municipality allows it; the franchise supermarkets compete with each other, and we go under. The last couple of weeks, since the opening of the Albert Heijn, I have really noticed the difference. I actually fear I won’t exist for much longer, and the municipality stays silent”, he says. El Jouhri thinks it is not just his store that suffers from the growing number of supermarkets. “If nothing changes, all small supermarkets will disappear from the neighbourhood”, he adds.
The municipality plays an important role in his story. According to El Jouhri, the process that precedes the building of a new supermarket was different when the Lidl on Molukkenstraat was opened in January 2012. “Back then, we got a letter from the municipality, and small business owners were invited to an information session. We were told about the ways in which we could object to the plans, and make our voice heard. Why was there no such evening with the building of the Albert Heijn? We did not know it was coming, or how we could object to it”, he says.
A representative from the municipality, working for ‘Stadsdeel Oost’ (department Amsterdam East), as ‘gebiedsmakelaar’ (a mediator between municipality, businesses and residentials) explains the process that precedes the building of a new supermarket, and how such differences can occur: “Basically, for every building in the city, what it is allowed to be used for, is written down in plans (bestemmingsplannen). If a developer wants to use a building for something that is not allowed for in those plans, a procedure is started. In that procedure, the developer has to show, through a large volume of research in a number of different areas, that their idea fits in the neighbourhood.”
According to the representative, such a procedure deals with a lot of different aspects of social life. “Think about traffic, how many similar shops already exist in the vicinity, et cetera. The procedure needed for the development of the supermarket took about 26 weeks, during which we as municipality evaluate all the research done. Other stakeholders in the neighbourhood can file what is called a ‘zienswijze’. Essentially, this means they can file any complaints or objections they might have with the plan. We take those objections into consideration when ultimately deciding whether to allow the plan or not. This is why we insist that a developer organises an information session to tell the local stakeholders about their plan; they need to show us that the local community supports it”, he says.
The requirements such an information session has to fulfill are extremely specific. “Usually, we demand that they invite stakeholders that surround the development within a certain radius; the exact size of which can vary. In the case of the Albert Heijn, that did not include a lot of businesses. The manager of El Jawhara, therefore, may have been invited for the information session about the Lidl and not the one about the Albert Heijn, simply because they are a little closer to the Lidl”, he says.
According to the representative, even though El Jouhri and other store owners were not invited to the information session, they could still have raised complaints and made their voices heard. “When a decision has been reached, people can still object to it for six weeks. They can even take it to the high court”, he says.
When asked about the fact that supermarket owners like El Jouhri could not object to the plans if they were not informed about it, the representative remains resolved. “Such decisions are published in a number of places. It is partly your own responsibility to stay aware of the developments in the neighbourhood. Of course, we try to do as much as possible, but there is a line between what you have to do, and what you could do”, he adds.
Now that the new Albert Heijn is in place, little can be done. How the situation might be improved, however, is through dialogue. El Jouhri is positive towards Karim Triki’s invitation to talk: “We can always discuss things. If Albert Heijn wants to talk, we are very open to that prospect. They can always come over.”