By Sue Botos
After a lengthy discussion, which included testimony by several Whole Foods executives, local business persons and Mayor Pam Bobst, the city Board of Zoning and Building Appeals rejected a request by a resident to reconsider the location of the Whole Foods market slated for the River Square Shopping Center.
Robert Weible, who lives on nearby Rockland Avenue, filed an appeal of the Planning Commission’s final approval for the 40,000-square-foot market with the BZA, and brought an official protest before the BZA at its September meeting. The board turned down both measures by a 5-1 margin, with member Roberta VanAtta casting the sole supportive vote.
In prior appearances before the BZA, Weible had stressed that while he approves of Whole Foods and will shop at the market, known for its healthy food offerings, he reiterated his concerns involving zoning and the fact that the market will draw nonlocal customers, plus his worry that there will be a dramatic increase in traffic on already-congested Detroit Road.
Whole Foods legal counsel Dale Markowitz refuted Weible’s claim that the market should not be placed in an area zoned for local business because customers will come from a wide radius. “We have significant testimony from Whole Foods representatives that Whole Foods is designed to operate in neighborhoods.” Referring to city ordinance, he added, “The fact of the matter is that council concluded that grocery stores can be in both local and general business (areas).”
Weible reported he has visited a number of Whole Foods markets throughout the country, including the one in University Heights, and that none are in residential areas.
Markowitz responded that people like their food stores nearby. “Your evidence is still lacking as to why the Planning Commission was in error,” he told Weible.
Whole Foods architect Jim Voelzke echoed Markowitz’s claim that the grocery chain seeks out neighborhoods as their home. He said that in University Heights, there have been “no issues with the single-family houses adjacent to the property.” He added that many of the stores now being built include housing above them. “This is what we do, we design stores to fit the neighborhood,” Voelzke said.
Speaking to the traffic issue, transportation planner Mike Workosky said that a study was done comparing the theoretical traffic volume generated if the shopping center were fully occupied to what Whole Foods would generate. VanAtta balked at the fact that the study did not use figures from the present condition of the center.
“We’re looking at the center as a whole, not at one tenant,” stated Workosky. He pointed out that even if Whole Foods did not take over the space now occupied by Fitworks and the former Rite Aid, another tenant would. He admitted that while there may be an increase in traffic flow, it would not be significant.
Addressing Weible’s concern over property devaluation, longtime area Realtor Gloria Hardington testified to the contrary. “An empty building does more to bring down property values,” she stated, pointing to the “natural progression” taking place that began with the refurbishing of Old Detroit and is continuing down Detroit. “It’s absolutely incorrect to say that this will harm the area,” she added.
Planning and construction expert David Hart noted that although traffic is a legitimate concern, it’s the price to be paid for progress. “Don’t penalize (the city) for having a successful shopping center. If it generates a little more traffic, so be it,” he stated.
Traffic congestion was of little concern to Bill Brink, marketing manager for nearby Beachcliff Market Square, who said vehicle volume meant a thriving business area. “The bottom line is, does this do unjust harm to adjacent property? No matter what goes in there, (traffic patterns) will change. Congestion is a good thing,” he stated.
When questioned by Weible, Bobst stated that no traffic studies of Detroit have been done by the city thus far. However, she added that surveys will be a part of the feasibility study concerning the future of the Marion Ramp. Speaking to the Downtown River project, in which Whole Foods will play a big part, Bobst stated, “This is our dream. This is what we have been working on since 2005.”