Saturday, April 29, 2006

Whole Foods in Madison: Why the Council Should Overturn the Plan Commission

by Tom Bozzo

On Tuesday, the Madison City Council will take up an issue of uncommon interest to the local Urban Haute Bourgeoisie: the proposal to relocate the Whole Foods market from its current location at University Ave. at Shorewood Blvd. a few blocks west to the corner of University Ave. and Segoe Rd. This has twice been rejected by the Madison Plan Commission over land use concerns. I've said before the correct resolution is for the Council to overrule the Plan Commission.

In this case, I find myself opposing, perhaps improbably, former mayor Paul Soglin, current alder Brenda Konkel, and the Capital Times editorial page, among others. All marshal an array of arguments against permitting Whole Foods to relocate to the Hilldale site as proposed by the developer.

As I suggested yesterday, the theme of this post is, "Good ideas don't need bad justifications." I have yet to see a good justification for the Plan Commission's actions.

The core argument is that the design for the site — a single-story building with a large parking lot (as I've snarked before, you might think it was going to be a grocery store) — violates the "new urbanism" principles behind the Hilldale redevelopment.

As the Cap Times put it:
The plan is distinctly at odds with the vision that has been promoted forthe renewal of the Hilldale Shopping Center area. The goal has been a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented "lifestyle center" with parking in multilevel ramps hidden behind condominiums or commercial buildings.
This does not withstand serious scrutiny. As an economist, I like to consider statements like this in terms of the (probable) alternative outcome, which is relocation to a suburban location beyond the reach of the Madison Plan Commission. In that light, the real question is, "How do you promote urbanism in any form by sending development into the suburban sprawl?" Perhaps more to the point, in a world where economic and environmental concerns will favor de-sprawling, it makes no sense not to keep the business in a relatively central location (about 0.6 mile/1 km west of the present store).

The proposed location is clearly superior to almost any alternative from the perspective of bike, pedestrian, and transit-friendliness. Hilldale, unlike any suburban location, has large numbers of condo and apartment dwellers within walking distance. Segoe Rd., the cross street, is a designated bike route, and the east-west Blackhawk and Indian Hills bike paths run nearby. Several Madison Metro bus lines provide high-frequency service along University Avenue. Should the proposed commuter rail system be built, a planned station is a couple blocks away.

Any suburban location seems destined to generate more, and longer, automobile trips — along already congested suburban arteries — particularly for residents of comparatively central neighborhoods (like me, truth be told) who, to be blunt, shelled out relatively big bucks for our relatively small houses in part not to be slaves to our cars.

Land use arguments against the project also are not compelling. On the false equivalence side, the Whole Foods part of the Hilldale redevelopment plan is likened to the big box sprawl on the city's suburban fringes. It's silly to liken the fate of one middle-west-side block to the faceless sprawl that has been allowed to propagate on the far east and west sides. It's not that the city's planners shouldn't regret fomenting sprawl in the past, but again to do so by encouraging more sprawl is not the correct response.

The plan admittedly would roughly halve the amount of commercial space currently on the proposed Whole Foods site. Ald. Konkel asks, "is that enough?" No. The existing office buildings are vacant and have little prospect of being re-occupied. Moreover, the entire line of argument ignores the considerable net increase in density in the surrounding blocks comprising the rest of the development. There is puffery: the buildings are "multi-story," says Ald. Robbie Webber. (True enough, three is greater than one.) Konkel raises a technical issue over the buildings' eligibility for demolition, noting that they aren't structurally unsound or incapable of rehabilitation — except, it should be noted, for the proposed use — which given the buildings' lack of architectural significance (indeed, cheapo modern ugliness) is malapropos. Konkel also complains that the development includes 30% more parking than the zoning ordinance requires for a development of that size; such an argument seems sure to boomerang for some future development.

Other bad arguments stoke local pretensions. Appeals to the existence of other Whole Foods stores that have parking structures are little more than big-city envy. Madison is not a particularly dense city as it stands, and the site is located in a transition zone between the "old" suburbia southwest of the UW-Madison campus and newer, lower-density suburbia. Those other Whole Foods sites are in much denser areas. There are Whole Foods locations in denser and richer areas (Bethesda-Chevy Chase Md., for instance) that, shockingly, have surface parking.

But if keeping up with other cities doesn't work for you, there's parochialism as an alternative. The Cap Times editorial needlessly modifies "Whole Foods" with "Texas-based" and "developer" with "Chicago-based." We can only assume it's Bad — as Soglin, approvingly quoting Tim Melcalfe, owner of the conventional grocery store located within the old Hilldale Mall, suggests — that the plan is being advanced by nonlocal firms.

Indeed, Soglin's quote of Metcalfe is a truly terrible reason to turn down the project: to show "true support" for locally-owned businesses. Obviously, it would strain my credulity past the breaking point to think Metcalfe would be arguing in favor of the plan if only the Willy Street Co-Op were to occupy the site.

It's argued that the area doesn't obviously need so many grocery stores, but Metcalfe's Sentry Foods and the Copps (née Kohl's) directly across University have co-existed for eons, and both conventional groceries plus the Whole Foods are slammed at peak times. Two of the three, in fact, have inadequate parking for peak business. They've managed being spread along a half-mile stretch of University for nearly a decade.

That distance may offer Metcalfe some ability to hold up prices on such items as are stocked in both stores, but I'm not convinced he's really that much better off if he gets his way. Nina Camic rightly noted in the comments:
The Hilldale commercial center has yet to demonstrate that it can override decades of frumpy-ugly, thoughtless, depressing retail management.
Whole Foods, whose "problem" is that it's overflowing its current site, will undoubtedly bring people to Hilldale. Whole Foods (even post-expansion) and Sentry are, and will remain, imperfect substitutes. We shop both, even on the same errand itinerary, in which I can't imagine we're alone. We also shop Woodmans, Copps, and other groceries, in which I also am pretty sure we're joined by others. So, is it more or less likely that someone completes a shopping list at Sentry if it isn't necessary to so much as move one's car to do so? Are they really better off with a sleepier Hilldale?

For that matter, is it more or less likely that later, density-increasing phases of the project will come to fruition if there is a retail amenity like the Whole Foods on site instead of in Fitchburg or Middleton?

I'll reiterate what Nina said: Pushing the store into the suburbs makes no sense. The reasons advanced in opposition to the project, given any careful scrutiny, make no sense. So I support my alder, Ken Golden, whom I expect will vote to override the Plan Commission. If you're a Madison reader, you should favor overriding the Plan Commission, too.
Why do you (plural) think a suburban location is the alternative? A new store in any location would probably mean closing the University store, and I can't imagine shopping WF if it wasn't mid-town. I don't think the existing store is overflowing either. The lot is full for maybe an hour a day.
Your argument is based on the specious assumption that Whole Foods would not accept a multi-story building with underground parking on the Segoe Road site. The fact is that Freed does not want to build one, not that Whole Foods cannot function with one, as they have in many locations. Opponents of the current plan are fine with Whole Foods at that site, just not in a "big box."

The other issue is the precedent of overturning the Plan Commission's two overwhelming "no" votes. Freed has tried to threaten the City if it doesn't get its way. Let's not give in to its bullying.
Anon 3:40, I think the University Ave. location is good for Whole Foods, but not the only location that would work. They might lose a handful of customers for whom the location is pivotal, would presumably pick up some more suburbanites, a draw? Who knows.

Anon 3:50, the assumption is, perhaps, unproven but not "specious." Multi-story groceries are rare for good reason -- it's a pain to move carts between floors -- and there's nothing about a quasi-suburban Madison site that demands it. I don't know what the existing underground parking layout is at the site, but if it would need to be reconstructed, its cost would considerably exceed that of the surface lot and thus affect the project economics and encourage the flight to the suburbs.

As for the "big box" critique, Sentry is just under 70,000 square feet in a +/- 400,000 square foot mall. The nearby Copps is a "big box" that's larger than the proposed Whole Foods, and the Village of Shorewood Hills has survived. This is the least of the corridor's aesthetic problems.

My overarching point is that there are substantial benefits to Madison urbanity from keeping them on the not-so-far West side, and the urbanist sensibilities of opponents would not be served by encouraging Whole Foods to leave.

As for the precedent value of a faulty decision, it's not a change of the rules for the council to weigh in. They're entitled to weigh in independently.

(P.S., while I tolerate anonymous comments, I ask that commenters use some sort of identifying handle.)
I understand the argument for wanting to keep WF in mid-town, but have they said they'll go suburban if the Segoe plan isn't approved? Do you think they mean it, or it's just a bargaining position?

Anon #1: I have no inside knowledge, so take this for what it's worth. My understanding is that WF had been scouting sites for a larger store for some time. (I was pleasantly surprised that they opted for the Hilldale site vs. a far west/southwest or Fitchburg alternative.) So my view is that moving out isn't a done deal, but it's a credible threat.
Anon#2 here:

No one has argued that Whole Foods should be a 2-story grocery; just that the building should be multi-story. Perhaps parking underneath, with something else above the store. (Restaurant? Coffee and blogger supplies?)

You're exactly right; the real issue is economics: "...its (underground) cost would considerably exceed that of the surface lot." But the overall Hilldale redevelopment plan was for mixed-use and structured parking. Why grant an exception for Whole Foods based on a threat to move out of town altogether?

As for Copps in Shorewood Hills, that's a different development in a different municipality with very different planning processes and standards. It's not a question of the "corridor's aesthetic problems."

Personally, I want WF at the Segoe Road location - closer for me (and for you at work). I spend much $ there, and at Sentry, and at Copps. Just make the site plan less like it would be if it were in Fitchburg.

- Since you want an ID, call me "Bratfest"
Uh, backing up from the details, can you please explain the phrase "a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented 'lifestyle center' with parking in multilevel ramps" in terms that make the two my-italicized parts make sense. And how this is going to be done without the shoppers having to travel further to their cars than they would optimally want?

I thought about being Anon #3, but the syntax is a giveaway.
Anon #2/'Bratfest': Sorry I misunderstood what you were suggesting. A mixed-use building would make some sense, the question being what the mixed use should be. I imagine my superiors could be persuaded to move across University if the WF were downstairs, but we don't take up that much space. There are, for now, surpluses of residential, office, and retail space in the area, so a question is to what extent can Freed be expected to build the space on spec. (Which, obviously, they're doing with other aspects of the project, though the residential is arguably less risky.)

Another part of my take is that if demand were to materialize, it would be relatively easy to build on the parking lot. The demand may materialize anyway in the long run, but that's potentially a very long time in which the site has no use at all.

Ken: The 'ped' part is that between some condos already built as part of the redevelopment, more underway, and a large (for Madison) condo built on an adjacent property, there's a lot of new housing within walking distance of the shopping. Because of its age, Hilldale is quite a bit less than a megamall in the size of the surrounding parking lots among other things, and the parking ramps give about the same typical distance of walk to the stores as the lots they once sat on. But "pedestrian-oriented" can be a planning mantra that, though a worthy goal, is window dressing on the continued need to accommodate King Automobile.

You wrote: "But "pedestrian-oriented" can be a planning mantra that, though a worthy goal, is window dressing on the continued need to accommodate King Automobile. " So why do you bow down to the King in your argument that we sholdn't even require the "window-dressing?"

I'm sure you saw the WSJ editorial this am pushing for a "no" vote and seeking a compromise plan. So now it's the Cap Times AND the State Journal; Soglin AND Konkel pushing "no." Where does that put you on the local political spectrum?

Assume that WF would locate at the same spot with the structured parking and multi-story plan the Plan Commission wants. Assume that Freed works hard to lease the rest of the structure, a risk they have taken with the rest of the development. Then what's your opinion?

Re. your economic analysis:
Middleton and Fitchburg are growing. Why not locate WF there, where the growing market is going to be? Madison "urbanists", who walk or ride their bikes to the grocery, can still shop at Sentry or Copps. They can carpool, bus or take a taxi to a Fitchburg WF, if they prefer that store, right? I doubt these bike-riding buyers supply a household like a suburban home that takes home bags and bags in the SUV, so their loss of business shouldn't matter all that much.

And, are you saying someone who shops around for groceries is going to spend additional time in Hilldale mall? While the meat gets warm and the ice cream melts? I think grocery shoppers are in and out, not staying to browse the mall.

I can see where you don't want to lose your WF nearby. But there are so many grocery stores there already. And if you are using your car to go from one to another, to shop around, you really aren't saving that much more fuel than one trip to Fitchburg or Middleton.

You could do your holiday shopping a few days early, and instead of stopping in for groceries right after work or on weekends, you could go during less peak hours.

People are moving to the suburbs. The WF should follow the people. That's not sprawl, it's meeting the need. Not everyone prefers overpriced Madison. There's bigger lots, better educational facilities, and room to grow outside Madison. Plus, more wealth on average.

I sympathize with your personal preferences, but there are tradeoffs in having your urbanism and eating it too.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?