Hungry for Whole Foods
Wooing of the Upscale Grocery Highlights Tension Over Changes in Columbia Heights

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006; D01

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.

Across the street, the Tivoli Theater has been restored, a Cuban restaurant with an art gallery has opened, and drywall is stacked in an adjoining storefront for a new coffee shop. Nearby, an apartment building with a vegan bakery is poised to open, a dry cleaner is coming, and a luxury condominium complex is being built.

When walking past all the construction, "My husband always turns to me and says 'That's our equity,' " Cooper said.

Drew Greenwald, president of Grid Properties, said Whole Foods has twice signed letters of intent. But negotiations stalled over the store's request for dedicated parking spaces, he said. The 1,000-space garage is being constructed with tax-exempt bonds, and spots cannot be set aside for specific retailers, Greenwald said.

The uncertainty did not stop an agent with Help-U-Sell Homes Matter Realty from recently advertising a four-bedroom townhouse on Euclid Street as being near "future retail incl Target, Whole Foods."

Robin Kang, 29, a computer specialist who bought a Victorian on Newton Place less than a year ago, began the e-mail campaign using a Web site he created.

His role models are the Logan Circle residents who enticed Whole Foods with a 52-page demographic study that demonstrated the affluence of homeowners within half a mile. They also flooded Whole Foods' headquarters with 3,000 pre-printed postcards.

Crista and John Gibbons frequented the P Street store while renting an apartment in Dupont Circle. Three months ago, they bought a house in Columbia Heights.

Crista Gibbons, 29, who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote to Whole Foods -- and to Starbucks. And she tried to persuade her Dupont nail salon to open a branch in Columbia Heights. "I'm just thinking of all the things I miss from my old neighborhood," she said.

Gibbons, Kang and Cooper are typical of the newcomers who have flocked to Columbia Heights: young professionals who want a centrally located neighborhood on a Metro line but who can't afford to buy in Dupont Circle, Logan Circle or U Street.

Between 2004 and 2005, the median price of homes in Columbia Heights and neighboring Mount Pleasant increased by 29 percent, according to the Urban Institute. The median price in 2000 was $173,000; in 2005, $450,000.

"I've been a resident of the neighborhood since 2001 and have seen it improve greatly since I moved there," one homeowner wrote in an e-mail to Whole Foods. "The quality of the residents, as well as the quality of the restaurants and stores in the area are likewise on a steep upward trajectory."

Columbia Heights had been depressed since the 1968 riots. Once a thriving shopping district, 14th Street NW between Irving Street and Park Road grew desolate. Middle-class residents fled, elegant rowhouses were boarded up, and apartment buildings deteriorated. A Metro station opened in 2000, beginning a revival that has been gaining speed.

The racial composition of the neighborhood has also been changing, with blacks moving out and whites and Hispanics moving in. In 1990, 66 percent of residents were black, 11 percent were white and 21 percent Hispanic, according to Census figures. By 2000, the most recent figures available, the share of blacks had dropped to 53 percent, while whites and Hispanics increased to 13 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Longtime residents say that trend has accelerated since 2000.

"A lot of the blacks are having to move because they can't afford to stay here," said Fran Robertson, 52, who has lived on Monroe Street since 1979. "These are people who have owned their own homes but have had to leave because the taxes are going up. The affluent is coming in, and the have-nots are moving out, and it's not right."

Robertson knows the pressures firsthand. She took out a $50,000 mortgage two years ago to pay increased real estate taxes. "It's a shame I had to go into debt to keep my house, but you have to do what you have to do," said Robertson, who lives on fixed disability payments.

She considered selling and moving to Prince George's County but did not want to leave the city.

"I like the Whole Foods, I really do," Robertson said. "I go to the Whole Foods on Wisconsin Avenue sometimes with my daughter. I like the cheeses and the fruits. But they have to stop thinking about having so much high-end stuff. They need to think about the little people who've been here all these years."

The discussion about Whole Foods reveals an underlying tension over the pace and shape of development in Columbia Heights.

"It's hard, because I know a lot of people who have lived in this neighborhood for a long time, people of all races, that are interested in Whole Foods," said Anne Theisen, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "The perception is that Whole Foods leads to gentrification. It speaks to what is already happening in the community and it might accelerate it."

Words are weighed carefully.

Lauren Tobias, 29, a communications consultant who lives at 14th and Chapin streets, spoke glowingly about the prepared foods at Whole Foods and how young professionals want the convenience of picking up a quick, healthy dinner. Then she caught herself. "I don't want it to sound like I'm one of the new people and I need all these services," she said. "But a Whole Foods is just needed."

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