Hungry for Whole Foods

(By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006

Heather Cooper sat at her computer and composed a love note to Whole Foods Market. Please, open a store in my neighborhood, Columbia Heights, she wrote to the nation's biggest organic grocer.

She wants organic avocados within walking distance, of course. But she also wants to make a statement.

"Whole Foods would symbolize that the neighborhood is not just up-and-coming; it would mean that it had arrived," said Cooper, 28, who moved there two years ago. "It would not only be an addition to the neighborhood, I think it would help our real estate values."

Here's one for the B-school textbooks: the Whole Foods Effect.

Homeowners, real estate brokers and builders see the natural foods powerhouse not just as a grocery but also as an engine for development. In Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, a Whole Foods is credited with triggering a revival. In Sarasota, Fla., developers say they pre-sold all 95 apartments in a condominium tower because a Whole Foods opened on the first floor. And in Washington, many trace the revival of Logan Circle and the 14th Street corridor to the opening in 2000 of a Whole Foods on P Street NW.

What makes the Columbia Heights quest pronounced -- and controversial -- is that a glistening Giant opened less than a year ago a cucumber's toss from where the Whole Foods would go. Giant's all right in a pinch, Cooper and others say, but it's no Whole Foods.

The hunger of some residents for the cachet of Whole Foods is stirring unease among working-class residents who worry they will be forced out by new affluence and among longtime retailers who are struggling with rising rents and sagging sales.

Business at the El Sausalito restaurant on Park Road, where a grilled steak costs $8 and iron bars cover the windows, has been down for most of this year, said Franklin Rubio, the owner's son. The professionals moving into the community aren't filling the stools at the counter, he said.

"It would be more beneficial for the whole community if some of those lobbying for Whole Foods were to devote their energy to supporting the Columbia Heights farmers market," said Elizabeth McIntire, a longtime neighborhood activist, referring to a farmers market suspended by all the construction activity.

Whole Foods has received about 500 e-mails from people in Columbia Heights. Some bear messages as simple as "We beg you!" Others contain sophisticated references to the company's stock price, corporate strategy and the neighborhood's demographics. Many of the writers said they admired the company's social conscience and employment practices.

Whole Foods gets similar requests every day, said Kate Lowery, spokeswoman for the 184-store chain, which was founded 27 years ago as a natural foods store in Austin and had $4.7 billion in sales last year. "We even get e-mails from people who say 'I'm thinking of moving to a certain city but before I leave, do you have any plans to move there?' " she said.

For three years, Whole Foods has been weighing whether to locate a store in the heart of Columbia Heights, at 14th Street and Park Road NW, where a New York developer, Grid Properties Inc., is building a massive retail center on public land. The center, scheduled to open in 2008, will include Washington's first Target and a Best Buy.

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