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Senator asks Whole Foods to accept her proposals or don't open in JP

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  April 30, 2011 05:41 PM

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A State Senator is asking Whole Foods to break its lease agreement or sublet its Jamaica Plain property before the grocer opens a planned new store there if the company does not agree to two requests she has.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz said the national supermarket company should establish a fund to preserve the affordability of property around the store and she demanded that the grocer commit to hiring local residents for a “specific percentage” of positions at the supermarket.

“If making commitments of this size is beyond Whole Foods’ reach, the simplest way to protect the neighborhood would be for Whole Foods to break their lease on the Hyde Square space, or sublet it to another grocer specializing in Latino foods,” Chang-Díaz wrote in a letter Thursday to the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council.

The company signed a 20-year lease for the space at 415 Centre Street with Newton-based property owner Knapp Foods, Inc. in mid-January and has since begun renovating the building. No opening date has been set for the store. Knapp Foods had owned and operated Latino-specialty supermarket Hi-Lo Foods there for 47 years before that store’s closure and Whole Foods’ lease signing were abruptly announced.

In early March, the neighborhood council passed, by a one-vote margin, a measure to publicly oppose the store’s intentions to open a chain in Hyde Square. While taking that stance, the council concurrently formed an ad-hoc committee to gather additional information, questions and concerns about, and possible alternative uses for the property.

The Senator’s letter was her first public comment about the grocery chain’s plans for JP that have sparked intense and ongoing debate, in the neighborhood and beyond, including the formation of grassroots groups both for and against the grocer's arrival. The message from the legislator, who both represents and resides in Jamaica Plain, was addressed specifically to the ad-hoc group comprised of five JPNC members and 10 additional community members.

“As many residents expressed, there are several positives to bringing a retailer such as Whole Foods to JP,” wrote Chang-Díaz, before later adding, “Unfortunately, there are also serious negative impacts that Whole Foods’ entry into the neighborhood is likely to bring. I believe, with a heavy heart, that these disadvantages outweigh the advantages.”

“Even if Whole Foods behaves as the best corporate citizen, the best neighbor possible by all of our usual standards, its presence will still light a fire under the gentrification process that will displace low- and moderate- income residents from JP,” she continued “Increasing property values in our community is not always bad. Indeed, this is something every home owner in JP—low- or high-income, white, brown, or black—probably hopes for. But pace matters. A lot.”

She laid out two requests for Whole Foods in addition to pledges the company has made on its own to the community.

The company has said it expects to employ around 100 at their JP location. To that, the Senator said: “Whole Foods needs to commit to hiring locally for a specific percentage of these jobs.”

Chang-Díaz also said the company “should also work with credible community groups in the Hyde/Jackson area to set up and endow a community preservation fund for the purpose of keeping Hyde/Jackson area properties affordable for current residents.”

According to its website, Whole Foods donates one-day sales three times each year to a local or regional non-profit or educational organization. The Senator said the company should replace that strategy by front-loading its charitable efforts toward the fund supporting affordable properties.

“Endowing a fund that could buy available property in the Hyde/Jackson area with a commitment to keeping it affordable will require a serious financial commitment—no doubt,” she wrote. “But Whole Foods' detrimental impact on the neighborhood in the absence of such an investment would be of a far greater magnitude.”

“The planned expansion of a Whole Foods Market into the Hyde Square section of Jamaica Plain has generated heated debate among my constituents,” Chang- Díaz’s letter said. “Since I first learned of Hi-Lo Foods’ closing, my office has done its best to understand from all sides the different perspectives on this highly divisive issue”

She wrote that she and her staff have attended several community meetings on the matter, read hundreds of residents’ e-mails and met with Whole Foods officials, former Hi-Lo employees and local organizations.

Whole Foods officials could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday. The Senator and her staff were not immediately for follow-up questions regarding the letter that was first reported on by the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

To see the full text of the Senator's letter, click here.

E-mail Matt Rocheleau at

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