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What impacts should be considered and what should the community process look like if Whole Foods is really planning to move into JP?

As you know, the Jamaica Plain Gazette and JP Patch are reporting that Whole Foods will be moving into the building currently owned by Hi-Lo Foods - even though Whole Foods has yet to confirm.

Highlights of questions that have been raised so far include: What will be the impacts on local businesses, the Latino and Caribbean communities, traffic, parking patterns, the cost of rent, and properties values?

Given that these impacts could be significant, I propose we need a community process!

We need to educate ourselves about the facts, understand what we can legally influence and how, and ensure that all those potentially impacted are made aware and given the opportunity to participate in the process.

Let's discuss:

  1. What other potential impacts need to be considered?
  2. What should the community process look like, who needs to be involved, and how should we go about beginning the process?
Joseph

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Comment by Benjamin Mahnke on January 18, 2011 at 9:10pm
OK, that formatted funny and I just noticed a whole bunch of typos. Trust me that 'cut and friend' was supposed to read 'cut and dried'. Ah, well. Hopefully, you get the drift.
Comment by Benjamin Mahnke on January 18, 2011 at 9:00pm

Good evening, gang

 

This is actually my first post on this website. I would say 'long time listener, first time caller' except I only joined a few days in reaction to the Whole Foods rumors. FWIW, I've lived with my wife and kids near the Stony Brook station for ~6 years. I recognize a few names here from the world outside the web and the inter-tubes. Good to see folks again.

 

A few thoughts on the Hi-Lo/WF issue and what we appear to know and don't know - 

 

1) Obviously, it’s not clear whether or not WF has acquired rights to the Hi-Lo location. [aside: it's not clear to me whether Hi-Lo owns or leases the lot, and consequently what rights WF would acquire and what private parties they would be negotiating with].  

2) I believe it's also unclear why the Hi-Lo is closing down, some comments here to the contrary

2a - One hypothesis is that the business is unprofitable and they are in effect cutting their loses.

2b - Another hypothesis is that the business is profitable but the owners (the 'dude(s) in Newton' who I know nothing about) no longer want to run it for reasons unrelated to their operating margins. E.g. they want to reorient their portfolio of businesses in a different direction.

2c - A third hypothesis is that the business is profitable but a WF was able to make a more attractive offer, presumably because WF’s financial analysis projected that they’d make greater profits then Hi-Lo at the same spot.

Which of these hypotheses is accurate, if any, has significant ramifications for what kind of replacement to Hi-Lo might be possible in JP.

3) I suspect that, like lots of retail groceries, Hi-Lo had offerings that made a larger margin (per unit of product, per unit of shelf-space) and offerings where it made a smaller margin or lost money. It would also not surprise me if Hi-Lo carried a decent volume of products that they sold in small enough amounts that the store ended up losing money by devoting shelf and storage space to them. The Hi-Lo had a large footprint and an old building that surely resulted in larger fixed expenses then were ideal. The larger a business’ fixed cost the more volume it’s got to sell—and a larger sum of unit margins it’s got to realize—to break even.

 

Some observations/assertions, based in part on the above:

 

A) For the sake of this post let’s define the preferred product/product for Hi-Lo/replacement grocery as one which is i) differentiated from other groceries in the area, 2) popular, esp with folks who value imported brands and latin/carribbean cooking, and iii) profitable at a reasonable volume. The first two points are going to be important/valuable for the business and people on and off this website for the ways that they contributes to their personal quality of life and the kind of community they want to live in. The third point is required if the business is going to be a going concern. It would not surprise me some of the Hi-Los current offerings met these criteria and others did not.

B) WF’s and Hi-Lo’s product lines have very little to no overlap. They should been seen as complementary groceries, not substitutes. Attempting to get WF to offer a significant number of products that Hi-Lo carried at a similar price point seems like a tall order, to put it mildly.

C) If the Hi-Lo overall has been a profitable business then an entrepreneurial type would have an opportunity going forward to offer the preferred product line somewhere else in the north Centre St/Avenue de las Americas area. If lower fixed costs are important—and/or the subset of products that is profitable is pretty modest—then a smaller business with a smaller product line might provide a large part of the value that the Hi-Lo did in a more sustainable manner that is more aligned to community needs. That might just as simple as some existing bodegas expanding; I don’t know.

D) Just because a profitable opportunity exists that would meet community needs and make all sorts of people happy doesn’t mean it will happen. Market failure exists. In addition to which we don’t live in a world of perfect retail space options, perfect distribution networks for products, perfect regulatory decisions, etc. Community organizing is as valid a way to address these issues as other forms of consumer behavior (‘voting with your pocket book’, etc)

E) If a profitable opportunity does not exist here, then it seems things are more cut-and-friend. The United States has a large and healthy non-profit sector that provides services that require a charitable subsidy. I’m employed one organization in said sector. A grocery providing imported niche brands to a small community of devotees seems like a poor candidate for a non-profit, however.

 

In the ‘contract and relocate’ scenario detailed in C some people would certainly lose out. People who like to go to the store and find that the bottle of such-and-such is available despite the fact that they are the only person all week who will buy it will be frustrated by a smaller product line. They have in effect been enjoying a more diverse shopping experience thanks to a financial subsidy provided by the owners of the business and the people who buy more profitable products. It would be a charitable thing for a future owner to replicate this, but should not necessarily be expected.

 

Finally, although all sorts of other issues have been brought up in this thread (the nature of gentrification, the causes of the most recent recession, references to the old Flannagan’s which I believe was where the CVS is now, etc) I’d offer that a certain amount of the debate appears to be between the positions that

  1. It’s important to respond to this development by organizing the community so as to influence the composition of retail options in the north Centre street area
  2. The contributions that WF would make the JP community are being given short shrift. The company might be a better fit with the existing business community then people think

 

While both positions are debatable it’s not clear to me that they are in conflict

 

Comment by Pat Roberts on January 18, 2011 at 7:22pm

Thanks, Brett and Sarah.  Robbie, if you feel it's so bad for middle-class people to move to JP because they will gentrify it, then why did you move here?  And should we try to prevent more middle-class people from moving here and further gentrifying JP?  Maybe we should make a special planning board that people have get permission from in order to move here, so we can choose the appropriate mix for JP.  People come and go from communities for various reasons, and unless you would like a totally planned economy and society, you probably can't influence it much. 

 

Something else you might not know is that at least some of the Hispanic people who used to live here and have moved away were delighted when the property values went up so high, because it meant they could get much more money for their property than they expected--so they sold and moved to Florida.  (This is something Jeff Sanchez, our state rep, said in a JP Gazette article a few years ago.  Jeff grew up in this neighborhood.)  Sometimes when people move from one communty to another, it represents a good change for them, not a tragedy. 

 

And, as many people have been saying, Hi-Lo went out of business because not enough people shopped there.  How can it be such an essential part of the Hispanic community and still have to close its doors from not enough customers? 

 

Brett forgot all the Germans who lived in the Hyde Square area and worked in the many breweries that were based here.  When we moved to JP in 1981, the building housing Spontaneous Celebrations was still called The German Club, and there were still old German folks who spent their time there.  Another population that is no longer represented here.  Should the Hispanic population that started moving to JP in the 70's have made a greater effort to keep the Germans from leaving? 

 

I'm sure you are just trying to be a nice person, but your concern is misplaced. 

Comment by Steve Garfield on January 18, 2011 at 7:08pm
I love the new direction of this thread. Thanks Brett and Sarah.
Comment by Sarah on January 18, 2011 at 6:55pm
I think Brett says it well. Communities are fluid. There was probably a lot of hand-wringing from locals when Hi-Lo replaced the market that was there before ( was it Flanagan's?) because people felt that the essence of their neighborhood was changing. But that's what neighborhoods do. There are a lot of Latino business owners in Hyde square who are probably delighted with this turn of events--new markets will fill the gap that Hi-Lo leaves behind. And come on--no one is going to starve for lack of affordable Spanish groceries. Not only does the Jackson Square Stop & Shop have a ton, there are countless smaller neighborhood stores and Tropical Market in Dudley. Hi-Lo wasn't the only game in town. For those of us who do our shopping on foot and bike and bus, the options are more limited but not oppressive.

Re the public market--while I love the idea, it's not feasible. Farmers markets thrive best, I've been told, on a three-way split between tourists, locals and commuters which is why farmers fight harder for a space at Copley than they do for a spot in Hyde Park.

I'm looking forward to Whole Foods and will be curious to see how they adapt to the neighborhood. I'd be very surprised if they don't do a lot of community-specific events and outreach. And last but least--hallelujah for more local jobs. Everyone I've ever known who worked for WF, including two former employees at my old local independent grocer was very happy to be working for them and from I've seen, they employ a lot of new immigrants and have a lot of mobility within the company.

Re the public
Comment by Brett on January 18, 2011 at 6:15pm

You're still basing all your statements on two completely unsupported claims about Whole Foods' intentions, and a refusal to look at how area businesses have responded to the needs of the community.  JP has a number of shops and bodegas, and empty retail space.  What makes you think one of those shops won't expand?  Hi-Lo wasn't a "local" business- it was owned by a dude in Newton.  So if local bodegas pick up the slack (which I bet they're thrilled to do), seems good to me.  And I bet the local community leaders have been talking this all over already.

 

You keep reminding us that you're not a member of the community that you say will be so severely affected by this.  Yet, you seem to feel that they need or want you to speak for them.  You also seem to feel that they're powerless and helpless, which I imagine might be pretty offensive.  Do they lack community organization? (No.)  Do they lack representation in the local business community? (No.)  Do they lack representation and liasons within the city government? (No.)  So why exactly do they need your help?  Have you talked to anyone at Hi-Lo?  Have you talked to any of the existing community organizations that represent that area?  Far as I can tell, you also haven't even done any research, because it took all of a few minutes to find published news articles and facts on Wikipedia that directly contradicted a number of statements you've made.

 

And...you're playing the appeal-to-emotion card again, and ad hominem; the gentrification card is kind of funny, given how JP started out as where all the Rich White People lived (ever wonder how WELD Hill got its name?), and how fluid and diverse the population has become.   JP once had a decent number of Canadian residents.  Then it was largely Italian and Irish.  Then African, Asian, Carribean, and Central/South American immigrants.  And GLBT folks.  It's now a mixture of almost every class of Boston society; we've got lots of families, single people, couples.  People of all ages.  Income levels run the gamut.  We've got academics of every flavor, professional folk, blue-collar folk.  It's a pretty fluid community.  And at the end of the day, if you look at our census results, JP is considerably more diverse than the US population as a whole, both in percentages and the number of different ethnicities, cultures, and lifestyles....

Anyway, this whole thing has jumped the shark.  I've said all I think I can/want to/should.

Comment by Robbie Samuels on January 18, 2011 at 2:23pm
Writing counter points to arguments that pop up on this board isn't really the point. For me, it's not about Whole Foods or even about Hi-Lo. It's about gentrification, "the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents" [Merriam-Webster]. This isn't the start of the gentrification process in JP - but this is what it looks like. As a white person who hopes to be accountable to people of color I'm incredibly saddened by the tone from my neighbors on these boards. The community that you live in has a wonderful diversity that is threatened by changes like this. I would hope as a community, regardless of race or class, we'd put our heads together and consider what options are available once the full facts are known in this instance – and work together and educate ourselves about gentrification so we can be sure we’re moving towards a future JP that continues to have space in it for non-white, non-middle class residents.

I realize this post won’t resonate with everyone so I’m really not talking to the folks that believe the market will make this right and we should just wait and see. I’m also not talking to the folks that are concerned with the tone in my and other’s messages – words that suggest we might need to organize and push for an outcome rather than it just being a given that the new store will do right by the community that had previously been served. I’m talking to my fellow neighbors who might really like the idea of a WH or similar grocer because it meets their self-interest (I'm in that demographic), but are concerned about how this might impact the Latino & Caribbean communities. Just consider the larger questions about what kind of neighborhood you want to live in – and if the multi-cultural, multi-class aspect of JP is part of why it’s appealing – consider what you’d be willing to do to ensure that continues to be the JP we live in.

Either way, we’ll know the outcome in the next 10-20 years.

Comment by Stephen Edgar Scott III "Bubba" on January 18, 2011 at 11:56am

For selfish reasons I want them to move in I currently work for them and love the company.  I also live less than a 5 minute walk from the building in question, and would transfer to the new location asap.  I have also looked into the rumor from the inside and haven't heard anything about the move to JP.

I also agree with Steve and Brett in the fact that Whole Foods is a great company, and they/re very focused on taking care of their employees and the farmers/fisherman who provide the merchandise for their chain.

"a supermarket chain run by stakeholder model ( http://google.com/search?q=stakeholder+model ), who provides livable wages, promotes sustainable fishing, supplies decent produce (organic and conventional), and supports fair trade, and both animal and farmworker rights. "Nasty stain on JP"?"

Comment by Lisa on January 18, 2011 at 11:55am

Why do people want to fight Whole Foods. It's not like mean old Whole Foods came in and took over poor defenseless Hi-Lo. Not enough people were shopping there so they went out of business.

The neighborhood changed when schools and churches are being closed down and turned into condos. We need not blame Whole Foods.

Comment by Daniel Verinder on January 18, 2011 at 11:51am

1) @ Rira-are you serious? If so, please post the price and the broker so we can discuss. Why do we still believe in might makes right for foreign policy and money makes right for domestic policy? Are people serious about this, esp. after seeing how this kind of thinking both led us into a recession and how that recession is leading to good businesses having to make touch choices (case in point, Hi-Lo)?

 

2) While all the facts are not in, here are two noteworthy facts:

a) There are 6 WF's already within 5 miles of Hi-Lo, one of which is a short walk from the Mass Ave T stop (and only 2 miles away). Hence, WF fans have choices, but if nothing similar to Hi-Lo comes along, international food fans lose choices. i.e. diversity of choice suffers.

 

b) WF's business model, for all the hype, looks  a lot like Wal-Mart (except for that low-price thing)--it damages local businesses and often fights livable wages and healthcare:

http://michaelbluejay.com/misc/wholefoods.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/mar/27/supermarkets.usnews

 

3) Sadly, I think Andrew Joslin has it right. How do you fight WF without addressing the larger problem-the gentrification of JP and similar neighborhoods? (I think this is a symptom of that and the poor economy overall.) Based on some of the comments, I'm guessing that's a tough to impossible fight, and one that, if we all care about it, we should have been talking about years ago. There are groups trying (CLVU, IPS), but it's an uphill battle. MA's/Boston's taxation system is pro-corporate, regressive, and way too lenient on a lot of so-called "nonprofits", leaving lower and middle class residents and service cuts to fill in the gaps. High real estate, for that reason, is seductive to the city as well.

 

4) As evidence of this being a symptom, we're also losing Great Wall, and it's being replaced by a high priced Asian Fusion restaurant. sigh.

 

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