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JP divided over new Whole Foods Market

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In an ongoing fight against gentrification, Jamaica Plain residents are increasing resistance to the planned opening of a Whole Foods Market in Hyde Square. Last week, a small group of activists hand-delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to the Whole Foods regional office in Cambridge, calling on the chain to stay out of their neighborhood.

The high-end grocery store is slated to start business at the end of March, replacing Latin grocer Hi-Lo Foods, which has been in the community for the past four decades. Opponents say Whole Foods, commonly dubbed “Whole Paycheck,” is unaffordable for most JP residents, and will lead to rising real estate and commercial prices and the collapse of locally-owned businesses.

The petition is part of continued efforts by a loose coalition of residents called “Whose Food? Whose Community?” that has held numerous meetings and rallies since Whole Foods’ plans were revealed in January. According to Cheryl Desanctis, one of the residents who delivered the petition, it “makes the statement that we are representatives of JP and here we are.”

Desanctis, who has lived in Jamacia Plain for about a year, considers access to affordable and healthy food a human right   — one that she believes Whole Foods will not provide.

When the activists reached the grocer’s regional office in Cambridge, they tried to meet with President of the North Atlantic Region Laura Derba to explain their views, but were told that she was unavailable. Instead, the group of about 15 spoke with Derba’s assistant, who agreed to pass the petition along to her boss.

But this coalition is not the only group in JP speaking out against the grocery giant. Earlier this month, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council voted to publicly oppose Whole Foods’ impending move to Hyde Square. In a statement, the council said, “Based on what we know now, we are concerned that Whole Foods is not a good fit for Hyde Square.”

The elected advisory group reaffirmed its commitment to affordable housing, and said it would work with the community to find other uses for the vacant property. But the council’s position has no teeth to stop Whole Foods’ plans.

Much of the fear over the new Whole Foods store is backed by research conducted in the past few years. In 2007, a Portland economic consulting firm found that after a Whole Foods opened, homes within a block and a half of the store rose 20 percent in value — the “Whole Foods effect.”

Others have seen this as well. “When Whole Foods opens up a store in a particular market, all of the real estate in the area gets a nice uplift. It could be a few percent to 10, 15, 20 percent in terms of the real estate value,” said Greg Badishkanian, a Citigroup analyst who tracks Whole Foods, in a 2006 Public Exchange Radio interview.

In the same story, Chris Pine, the grocer’s vice president of real estate, agreed. “We get calls from many mayors throughout the U.S.,” he said. “They all understand the power of a Whole Foods market in a certain part of town.”

Even Whole Foods CEO John Mackey recognizes the effect of his stores on neighborhoods. “We haven’t commissioned any studies, but I understand that when we opened in Chelsea [in New York City], condos above the store went up 10 percent in price on the first day,” he said to Fortune in 2007. “The joke is that we could have made a lot more money just buying up real estate around our stores and developing it than we could make selling groceries. That’s one reason we have a lot of landlords aggressively [trying] to get us as tenants.”

Desanctis acknowledged that while some homeowners may enjoy the bump to their property values, the Whole Foods effect would not necessarily benefit everyone in JP. Pointing out that the proposed Whole Foods will pop up in a community of renters, not owners, she explained that increased real estate values would push lower-income families and small businesses out of the neighborhood.

But Whole Foods insists its presence will help, not harm the community. In an open letter to JP residents, Derba said the chain will not change the distinctive exterior of the building, will hire 100 new employees, including some currently unemployed and some former Hi-Lo workers, and will carry “products that cater to the diverse demands of the community.” In addition, Derba said the grocer would give 5 percent of its earnings back to the community.

While Derba’s statement hasn’t convinced Desanctis and others, many in JP do support Whole Foods’ move. Desanctis notices a “divide” in the community on the issue, especially because many want healthy, accessible food, and see Whole Foods as the best option.

But for Desanctis and her co-activists, a bigger issue is at stake — community. JP is a neighborhood of small, local businesses, she said, and “we really want to preserve and cherish what makes Jamaica Plain the community-oriented place it is.”