Whole Foods Faces Unique Form of NIMBY-ism in One Boston Neighborhood

NIMBY-ism is nothing new for developers, retail and otherwise, who see their best-laid plans assailed by those averse to such “Not In My Back Yard” staples as traffic, density, building height and (often unspoken) poorer newcomers. In the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain (“JP”), however, Texas-based organic grocer Whole Foods faced NIMBY-ism of a unique variety for a retailer – resistance based on fear that the new store would cause gentrification.

On October 31, 2011, following months of debate, a closely-contested vote of the Neighborhood Council, a few arrests and a series of demands by the most vocal opposition groups, Whole Foods opened its newest Boston location at the former Hi-Lo Foods in JP. For months, the store was the center of a neighborhood firestorm related to its potential connection to JP’s further gentrification.

Retail has long been an indicator of gentrification (see coffee bars, cupcake shops, pet boutiques). However, the JP opposition, specifically the outspoken “Whose Foods? Whose Community?” coalition, turned this dynamic on its head. Rather than casting Whole Foods as another sign of the ongoing gentrification of that neighborhood, the opposition instead categorized the grocer as a catalyst of gentrification and a causal factor for future displacement, disappearing affordability, and myriad ills frequently associated with gentrification. According to the “Whose Foods” website: “Whole Foods is a business that will lead to increased real estate and commercial prices in Hyde Square, which will displace even more low- and moderate-income families.” This unique characterization, which the coalition used to justify demands that Whole Foods enter a binding “Community Benefits Agreement,” apparently presumes that a retailer’s presence can make such a statement regarding a neighborhood’s character, and constitute such an attractive amenity, that rising property values and rents will follow, uprooting current residents.

Essentially: desirability has been couched as a negative externality.

While Whole Foods’ experience could be unique to JP – the result of a perfect storm of existing gentrification, a fragile ethnic and economic balance, and a community penchant for activism – retailers would be well served to monitor it. Though, for instance, Whole Foods did not sign the Community Benefits Agreement demanded by “Whose Foods,” the grocer did take affirmative steps to assimilate into its new neighborhood, including hiring employees from the Hi-Lo market it replaced and stocking its shelves with ethnic foods reflecting JP’s substantial Latin American population. The urban marketplace is the much-heralded “next frontier” for many traditionally-suburban, national brick-and-mortar retailers; however, American cities, for all of their untapped retail potential, present their own unique set of considerations. In addition to the more easily-modeled factors for retail location, such as accessibility, local spending power, nearby competition and permitting costs, the JP experience may signal that – at least in some settings – retailers must consider both whether they will be perceived as a valuable asset to the urban neighborhood, but also whether they might be perceived as too valuable an asset.

Related topics: Municipalities, Real Estate