By Sue Botos
Most residents are looking forward to filling their grocery carts with Whole Foods organic goods when the popular health-oriented market opens here in 2014. However, its proposed location in the River Square Shopping Center on Detroit Road has caused concerns among neighbors, ranging from noise, to parking, to additional traffic in an area already congested due to nearby schools and the library.
Since discussion of bringing Whole Foods to the city began in earnest with a 2009 Facebook campaign, residents and city officials basically agreed that the Rockport Shopping Center on Center Ridge Road, with its ample parking and general business zoning, would be the ideal location, rather than the current site of Fitworks.
But Whole Foods officials already had their minds made up before presenting plans to the city, and a rejection of the site proposal most assuredly would have sent them packing.
Planning Commission Chairman Bill Bishop noted in a recent interview that when Whole Foods is in the market for a new location, it is not a random decision. “They drew their circle with a 3- to 5-mile radius. They know what their demographics are,” Bishop stated, adding, “The site scouts search for spots that match these requirements.”
According to Whole Food’s website, the company looks to build 25,000- to 50,000-square-foot stores in high-traffic locations, with a large number of college-educated residents, at least 200,000 people within a 20-minute drive, easy access and plenty of parking.
Bishop said that detailed studies are then conducted, which gather this information about those living within the radius. “It’s amazing what they can do,” Bishop commented.
He added that Whole Foods markets are geared toward walkable areas of cities, such as Detroit Road and its proximity to the Downtown River area. Center Ridge, by contrast, is more vehicle-oriented.
These ideas were supported by Jim Voelzke, architect for Whole Foods, at the Planning Commission’s April public hearing, where numerous residents spoke of their concerns. Responding to comment by commission member Charles Gustafson that Rockport may have been a better choice, Voelzke said that, while he was not involved in the site selection process, “We prefer to be in the heart of a community.”
“The location was already selected. I merely made a suggestion about Rockport with the hope that Whole Foods may reconsider,” Gustafson recently told West Life. He added that the shopping center’s proximity to several large apartment buildings and other residences met the company’s walkability criteria.
“They didn’t even have to come to Rocky River to look at the site. They used their formula to determine the position based on population and the income of that population,” Gustafson stated.
The main concern among residents is the extra traffic generated on Detroit Road, which they feel is already impassable during rush hour. Bishop said the commission received a detailed study from Whole Foods based on half-hour increments, which projected the store’s volume.
“The realization is that the number of people visiting the store would be less than Fitworks during peak hours,” Bishop said. He added that if the fitness center, which, ironically, will be moving into a portion of the old Target store in Rockport, had stayed and the empty 15,000-square-foot building next door were rented, the result would be a greater volume of traffic.
Although some neighbors have taken a “wait and see” attitude, Rockland Avenue resident Robert Weible has filed a protest with the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, stating, among other points, that the shopping center is zoned for local business, not for the wide-ranging customers it will draw. “Rocky River is violating its own zoning code, creating a traffic nightmare for the businesses along Detroit Road, and is essentially destroying our neighborhoods,” Weible said in a communication to West Life.
The zoning issue has remained murky throughout the approval process for the store, as Planning Commission and BZA members have pointed out that the plaza once housed a Pick-n-Pay grocery store, which was larger than Whole Foods’ proposed 40,000 square feet.
When contacted, Weible added that he had not been made aware of any detailed traffic studies conducted by Whole Foods, and that in consultation with a Realtor, it was determined that his property values would suffer as a result of the store’s location. “The residents of the three neighborhoods bordering the River Square Plaza will be damaged significantly,” he stated.