The Whole Foods Effect and the Central West End

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In August, nextSTL reported on efforts to bring a Whole Foods Market to the long vacant lot at Euclid and West Pine in the city's Central West End neighborhood. The project now appears to be moving forward, with developer Bruce Mills announcing that the grocery chain has signed a letter of intent. The site was the location of the Doctor's Building until 2008, when it was demolished. The latest City Walk proposal is for a 6-story building with 159 rental apartments, 6,100 sq ft of community space (fitness center, club house, cafe and lounge), and 393 parking spaces (up from 312 in 2009) in a garage conceled from street view. The rendering above, from the 2009 proposal shows a seventh story on the half of the project nearest Euclid, but otherwise still appears to accurately reflect the current design.

At 30,000 square feet, the Central West End store will be very close to the same size as the 34,000 square foot Brentwood location. It appears that the grocer will be on one level despite previous planning drawings showing a two-level retail space. The lot measures 1.65 acres, or just more than 70,000 square feet. The store will occupy the first level of the western half of the development. The $60M mixed-use project is set to receive $10M in Tax Increment Financing. The Straub's grocer at Maryland and Kingshighway since 1947 is approximately 10,000 square feet.

Fullscreen capture 10182012 31933 PM.bmp
{the future site of Whole Foods and City Walk is a 1.65 acre vacant lot – center-right}

Why could a Whole Foods be important to the Central West End and the city? When someone asks if you can live car-free in St. Louis, the basic answer is "no". Now there will be a better answer. The neighborhood is certainly almost there already with a public library branch, dry cleaners, pharmacies, restaurants, movie theater, etc. The missing element has been a grocer that met resident's needs and expectation. As a former resident of the neighborhood, I can say that the Lindell Shnucks location and Straubs work well for some things some times, but larger shopping trips were always made to Richmond Heights or Brentwood.

It's tempting to scoff at the idea that a great urban neighborhood needs validation from a $9B revenue retail behemoth, but that doesn't make it less true. The presence of a Whole Foods will change the image of the neighborhood for many and for those relocating to St. Louis, the store is nothing less than a beacon screaming, "move here, it's mainstream, even fashoinable!" Whole Foods is vouching for the Central West End.

It's also true that the entire neighborhood isn't great (or built out). North of Lindell is a nearly intact five block stretch of corner shops, retail bays and historic homes. The block and a half north from Forest Park Avenue and the medical center shines as well, but the space in between carries little of the vibrancy and none of the charm of the rest of Euclid.

Back to my own experience: Knowing I would be moving to the city soon, I spent three days driving around St. Louis in the spring of 2002. There was a lot to like, but very little that I recognized. It wasn't obvious where the (or any) main commercial strip existed. Frankly, a Whole Foods would have changed that perception. Understanding that some dislike Whole Foods, some may fear its impact on other businesses and many are indifferent, it remains undeniable that it will change the image of the city and the Central West End to others.

The four corners of West Pine and Euclid:

NE corner West Pine and Euclid
{NE corner – site of future City Walk and Whole Foods}

SE corner West Pine and Euclid
{SE corner – Tip-Top dry cleaner, a hair salon and Club 34 bar}

SW corner West Pine and Euclid
{SW corner – retail space has remained vacant for a decade}

NW corner West Pine and Euclid
{NW corner – residential apartments popular with students at the nearby medical complex}

Salon recently glossed up the "Whole Foods Effect", in a May article, Whole Foods is coming? Time to buy. The Post-Dispatch push that narrative, stating, "a decision by Whole Foods to open a grocery can signal that the chosen neighborhood has crossed a threshold of affluence and desirability." From the Salon article:

The company is so good at the real-estate game that it has spawned a catchphrase, the Whole Foods Effect…Whether the Whole Foods Effect is real, or the company is just extremely good at slipping into areas that would have gone upscale anyway, has never been directly quantified. But evidence suggests that Whole Foods can accelerate gentrification in particular ways. A new Whole Foods may not cause property values to shoot up on its own, but it can set into motion a series of events that change neighborhoods.

The claim of the "Whole Foods Effect" in particularly interesting in the context of the Central West End. In St. Louis, it's known as THE gentrified neighborhood, multi-million dollar mansions on private streets, rehabbed 1BR $500,000 condos, the tallest residential highrise building in the region in recent years, a seemingly ever-expanding population of researchers, post-docs and others employed at the adjacent medical campus, a world-class chess center… The Central West End is frankly THE city neighborhood already.

What does it say that Whole Foods in moving in? What will the effect be? For all the affection St. Louisans have for the neighborhood, there are a number of large vacant lots within a block of the West Pine-Euclid intersection. Perhaps for St. Louis, the Central West End is the place to be, but there is incredible potential for more development. A new form-based code dictates dense development in this part of the neighborhood (between Lindell and Forest Park Avenue).

This is why nextSTL has advocated for any central corridor streetcar line to run on Lindell in the Central West End. Now, having a line within one block of a Whole Foods makes even more sense. Having a national grocer, perhaps the national grocer opening in the neighborhood will have a significant affect. Back to the Salon story:

But it’s not just what Whole Foods signifies — it’s the evidence of success that it generates. “Before a Whole Foods goes in, if there’s not much private investment in that district, there’s no data for developers to look at,” says Bill Reid (a principal at the Portland, Ore., land-use consultancy Johnson Reid). A publicly traded behemoth is a data-generating machine. “You can go to their annual report and see how many customers they’re getting, how much traffic,” which lures other potential developers. And those other developers can bring Whole Foods’ numbers to a lender to get a loan. “To a lender and a developer, those are bankable numbers,” says Reid. “They’re as good as gold for a business.”

Much has been made of the Whole Foods in Midtown Detroit, becuase, you know, it's just supposed to be shocking that a grocer should open in Detroit. Yet the average household income of new home buyers in Midtown Detroit is $113,788, the highest in that city. The average household income of new home buyers in the Central West End (2006-2010) was $138,575. Whole Foods is also certainly aware of the hundreds of millions of dollars in development set to take place in the CORTEX life sciences district nearby.

We know the Central West End as a great urban neighborhood. It may just take having a Whole Foods open to get banks and developers to realize the same and put a shovel in the ground. It's easy to imagine other projects coming online as this development gets started. The empty building at Lindell and Euclid, the surface parking along West Pine and Lindell west of Euclid, the empty storefront across the street. If you question the impact of a Whole Foods, just watch. This development marks a significant leap forward for this corner of the city.

City Walk project drawings:

Citywalk - Euclid at West Pine - St. Louis, MO

Citywalk - Euclid at West Pine - St. Louis, MO

Citywalk - Euclid at West Pine - St. Louis, MO

Citywalk - Euclid at West Pine - St. Louis, MO

Citywalk - Euclid at West Pine - St. Louis, MO

Citywalk - Euclid at West Pine - St. Louis, MO

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  • T-Leb

    This + CORTEX = big success …. I am very excite!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kennethjpruitt Kenneth Pruitt

    We’re not asking the tough questions here, though. Why is gentrification automatically equated with goodness? Why are higher market prices for homes in the CWE something that will sustain the economy in the long run? Why are we so excited about a very expensive retail grocery chain who caters to middle- and upper-income white professionals, and not so much about developing parts of the city just blocks to the north that look practically bombed out? I fear this will widen the divide in STL between the haves and have-nots, at least as the perception of the CWE is concerned.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Those are good questions, but beyond the scope of the subject of this post. However, I will reiterate that there are quite a few large vacant lots/surface parking lots and empty buildings near this development. Putting those to use is a good thing. More succinctly put, the city has experienced a dearth of development over the past decades, crippling its budget and ability to provide basic services at a high level (police, schools, sidewalks, lighting, etc.). Development in an urban setting must acknowledge more than just revenue, but I’d contend that in St. Louis, even the Central West End, there is room for development on unused and vastly underutilized land that has few negative externalities.

    • Eric Matthew Wilkinson

      And why does this building look suspiciously like the one down the street that sits destroyed by fire? Why can’t anything look unique and new? Why does everything have to look like a half-assed attempt to imitate something old?

      • STLgasm

        Good question. This very subject has been discussed extensively in the forum thread, as well as in comments above.

      • Danger.

        The answer to this questions simple. This is the design that the builder wanted to build. He may have chosen another design if anyone wanted to put down additional monies and have a significant stake in the development of the project. If you have some investment monies, I think you could still get in contact with him and get a chance to directly impact the design and decision-making. In fact depending on how deep your pockets are there are a couple other developers looking at the area that are looking for development partners.

        • Alex Ihnen

          A better design need not be more expensive. Park Central Development (and likely the Alderman), and community residents play a role in determining a building’s design. What we get is very, very rarely exactly what the builder wanted to builder. Builders will get away with the cheapest building possible (often), and so the community always weighs in on issues like density, set back, even materials. So…if we’re going to weigh in and sculpt infill, let’s do so in a more progressive manner – that’s the argument. The old premise that you can’t have a say in your city or neighborhood, or on your street unless you’re financing a project isn’t rooted in the reality of the past or present, and surely not the future.

          • Danger.

            I understand what you are saying. But as far as this project is going, While he is a nice enough person in my book, I don think Bruce Mills is going to make any changes like the ones being suggested here unless said person comes with some real cash investment. The neighborhood at large hasn’t complained about these things and therefore any major changes to the design that has been lane out are not likely to change.

    • Brian

      Really?! Those are not tough questions… It’s the brain dead mentality that has held this city back for a century. Why is gentrification good? Why is it bad is a better question?

      So,…not sure where to begin. Go ahead, fight against the “man”. Feel good about it. But, one day when you grow up. Have children. And love the city life, but realize it lacks so many “gentrified” niceties, and you find yourself moving to the burbs.. Like so many do. Remember, you fought against making this city a something more than it is… A place to drive in, work, see a play and a sports event…

      A city is a place people, work, and live. Look At Washington avenue, very cool. But, would you really raise a family there? I mean.,..if you can afford $500k, you have a lot of choices,

  • STLgasm

    As a resident of the CWE, I am very excited by this news, more so for the increased density and pedestrian traffic than for the store itself. I think it will even boost MetroLink ridership, particularly from Wash. U. undergrads hopping on the train to shop. It will add a lot more hustle bustle to Euclid. I am hopeful that Straub’s will be fine– they have a lot of loyal shoppers who probably prefer its smaller size. While Straub’s is expensive, it’s never a hassle to go there for a few items I need, and that makes it worth it for me. Not sure how Golden Grocer is going to fare. I also hope Shapiro’s Market can carve out a distinct niche for itself.
    I would like to add that while the CWE may have a lot of wealthy people, I don’t think it could be considered “gentrified” for a couple reasons: 1) It has ALWAYS had wealthy residents since it was developed. 2) There are as many Section 8 buildings, social service agencies, halfway houses, group homes, etc as you would in any other city neighborhood. It is truly a mix in every sense of the word.

  • http://twitter.com/CaseyNolen Casey Nolen

    Will it look like this rendering? Is there something to be said for some investment in the design of a building?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Apparently. The technical drawings are more recent than the rendering, but the only difference appears to be that the building is now six stories instead of seven on the western half. IMO – it fits fine in its context. It’s not exciting, but not every building can excite. In this case, it gets most things right – massing, height, retail, hidden parking, etc.

      • STLgasm

        I’m not an architect or anything, but is it really a lot more expensive to build a contemporary-looking building? Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago and Philly have lots of sleek, modern apartment buildings of a similar size and scale that compliment the historic architecture nicely. We definitely need more glass in St. Louis.

        • Eric Matthew Wilkinson

          Glass is typically not very efficient although there are some coatings that improve that. But I agree that things should look more modern. There is nothing wrong with historic architecture and we all appreciate it, but there is something wrong with trying to imitate it; it demonstrates a lack of creativity and a belief that people are to dumb to appreciate something different.

          • pat

            It doesn’t show a belief that people are dumb. It shows a laziness/business mindset that is common in the industry. Why create something new every time when you can just take a previous project, make a few modifications, and spit out something new for more profit?

          • T-Leb

            Like in the Brady bunch movie when the father tries to make every sales with the original design of his home. LOL

        • Alex Ihnen

          It’s a good point, but we should also avoid painting with such a broad brush. Each of those cities have a ton of boring, bland infill as well. Those communities would likely be happy to have the Park East Tower, 4545 Lindell, the Roberts Tower, maybe even Six North and Metro Lofts. I’m always reminded of this when visiting Boston. There are quite a few standout buildings there, but there’s a ton of really mediocre stuff and quite a bit of really bad architecture as well.

          • STLgasm

            Good point, Alex. There are some good examples of modern infill here, but generally speaking I think we lag behind other cities. The Mills project we are discussing seems like a squandered opportunity– such a high-profile location deserves something inspiring and eye-catching. The fact that St. Louis has seen so little new construction lately should make the design aspect even more of a priority. It has the potential to set a new tone for the city. That said, I absolutely love the examples you cited. The Roberts Tower is the best looking shell I’ve ever laid eyes on!

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Groth/1233227399 Mark Groth

          ^Amen

  • Mark

    “This is why nextSTL has advocated for any central corridor streetcar line to run on Lindell in the Central West End.”

    From an urban-renewal perspective, isn’t the whole point of running light rail to spawn new development, not to enhance the value of the existing high dollar real-estate you mention in the article?

    If Whole Foods is already moving in, I doubt this is a place that is in need of multi-million dollar infrastructure projects. You also neglect to mention: the MetroLink already stops here.

    There are so many other communities in St Louis City that would benefit from light rail –cooridors that are already under consideration by Metro– e.g., Jefferson, North & South St Louis City. Running tracks in these directions would make it easier for people to get to work, and would almost certainly bring new development to otherwise decaying areas of the city.

    Also, while I love and shop at Whole Foods, I have a love/hate relationship with it. I shop there out of lack of viable grocer alternatives in my own neighborhood. And all of this neglects to mention: Whole Foods is a chain. The point of chains is to move in, lower prices, and steal market share from little businesses by destroying them. Why on earth would this be celebrated in a New Urbanism blog?

    I feel as though we are veering slightly off course here. I expect better from this blog. Please realize that there can be a certain fan-boyism of the central cooridor perpetuated here that will be counter-productive to the rest of the city. What is the point of a shiny new central district if what’s left around it is a wasteland? You’re just moving blight around.

    • Adam

      I honestly don’t see how a Whole Foods and a streetcar line serving the CWE would detract from the rest of the city. Despite your feelings about WF vs. other grocers, there’s currently no full-service grocery store serving the neighborhood. (Straub’s is nice but limited.) WF is popular (for better or worse) and will help draw people from outside STL to the CWE, thus increasing the city’s population and tax base which, at this point, should be our primary concern considering that we can barely maintain the infrastructure we already have. (I do agree that WF should get zero TIF considering that Straub’s has never asked for any subsidies.) Also, it seems you’re not distinguishing between light rail and streetcars. Streetcars make many more stops than light rail and those stops don’t require as much infrastructure as light rail stops. And the thing about streetcars as development tools is that you can’t just run a streetcar from one blighted neighborhood to another and expect development. The people that ride the streetcar have to come from somewhere, and they have to be going somewhere. Thus it makes sense to run a streetcar between a heavily populated neighborhood (CWE) and a job center (downtown) THROUGH areas in need of investment (e.g. Midtown, DT West). Lastly, it sounds like you’re assuming that Metro would build/operate the streetcar. I don’t think that’s the case, and so it shouldn’t effect future Metrolink expansions, especially a N-S line.

      • Danger.

        What do you mean there is no full service grocer serving the neighborhood? There is a schnuck’s ON Lindell 4 blocks down.

        • dempster holland

          Back in the 1950s and 1960s, before the days
          of the new urbanism, there was a Krogers
          grocery store on Euclid between W Pine and
          Laclede, in the lower level. This wasn;t seen
          as a symbol of anything, or as a beacon to
          anyone; it was just a place where you bought
          your food.

          • Alex Ihnen

            It is amazing that such basic “amenities” of neighborhood life are seen as adventurous or pioneering today.

        • Adam

          yep, you’re right. forgot about schnuck’s. maybe this’ll motivate them to clean up that store. in any case, WF carries a slew of items that schnuck’s doesn’t.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Points taken. This isn’t really a “New Urbanism” blog though. And questions of infrastructure investment, subsidies and more difficult, very nearly never presenting a simple, correct, answer. The context of the quote you cite is that a study is under way for a central east-west streetcar line. Some have argued that it should north of this area, along Olive. I have suggested Lindell is a better route. That’s a different discussion than arguing for a streetcar line in lieu of a north-south MetroLink line, or other urban renewal projects.

    • A Concerned Citizen

      I just think some people like to complain about anything. Never satisfied even if you build to their spec’s, with someone else’s money – a person like this will complain that it wasn’t enough, that nothing should be torn down for fear of losing a bit of their own identity instead realizing that the world keeps moving, things change and always will. That sometimes screaming and shouting about such things just makes them look like children instead of intelligent citizens that really do want the best. Its a good thing that organizations like whole foods and others of these sorts do NOT pay so much attention, else St. Louis would never get anything, because you know what. We aren’t NYC, Chicago or another city where we can push around organizations like that and they not just pass us by. We need them more than they need us. While I understand that there are things that can be done to protect some of the architectural designs that we have and cherish SO dang much and that there is some disdain for chains because some people would like ever place to be some nameless version of these chains. I personally think that having some of these chains is a VERY good thing. I believe that it helps to legitimize an area, attracting more retail that would pass us by otherwise, its the way things work. You need a respected organization to make the first move because you can get others and then have a viable landscape for your precious mom and pop stores to thrive in… Yes, we need to do more in the places that have less. I’m from those areas. Have been all my life. And I can say, that all the miss-guided white guilt projects poured into these community doesn’t help either. Having at least one area that is succeeding gives people in the less suited areas something to be proud of in the region and a place to show off when guest come to town, doesn’t mean that it needs to be IN THEIR BACKYARDS. Pick an area, where ever is best – Build it up. Connect the best of St. Louis so that locals and visitors can see that there is more than meets the dang arch in this city and that it’s not all about dodging bullets and that there ARE some nice neighborhoods. You don’t have to connect every dang one of them to make the point. But why get tourists on a “train to nowhere” , when we don’t even have a train to the somewhere in the first place. So, I just ask St. Louis to quit complaining all the time about every dang thing and start to celebrate something that is good. Wherever they may happen. Because besides crime this city is known for self loathing and its pettiness. Which is unfortunate because there are many great things here. But people that are visiting or thinking of moving here, get so tired of hearing about who did what to whom 40 dang years ago. You getting past it and letting it go and doing some positive things in this desert of despair instead of complaining that a dang trolley should have been built in or to an area of extreme poverty, where the most that will be done to it is not riding it but spray painting it. So stupid crap like this is frustrating to anyone not from here. Because this crap doesn’t even go on in cities with far worse economics and a much worst history. So, why here? On ever dang post on this blog is it just a system of mindless complaints about such positive developments in a city that is so desperately needing something good to talk about. Get over yourselves and get out and enjoy something for once. Geesh!

      • Alex Ihnen

        Thanks for the comment. Having lived a few other places, the only thing I’d add is this same thing goes on everywhere. Some are worse, some are better, some are a little different. The biggest difference here is that the city’s economy has been stagnant/declining for a long time. This sets up different dynamics: residents get used to things no changing, the city lacks leverage for pushing for better design, etc.

  • Samantha

    Straub’s isn’t more or less expensive than Whole Foods. The two stores have almost identical clientele. For those thinking they will get a better deal at Whole Foods, you should just drive to a Trader Joe’s or Aldi

    • Joseph Frank

      Good point – Aldi has been committed to urban locations in St. Louis City for many years. They even have a store within easy driving distance of the CWE, at Page and N. Kingshighway (actually on Aubert, one block east of Kingshighway). In neighborhoods where the only grocery store is oftentimes a gas station, Aldi has an important place. Yes, they are built with parking in the front.

      And yes, Trader Joe’s is awesome! I just wish that Brentwood store wasn’t so darned crowded all the time! They are actually expanding it into the adjacent storefront, I believe. (Not relevant here I suppose, but interesting that Brentwood Promenade is still busy and viable 15 years out – not every strip mall can say that.)

      Whole Foods will certainly be a pleasant addition to an already very pleasant neighborhood – the Central West End.

      • John R

        Aldi will build a more urban design if they are required to. They usually aren’t though in Saint Louis region. That needs to change.

    • Adam

      not necessarily a better deal, but a much larger selection than all the others you mentioned.