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Whole Foods Has Pick of the Real Estate Crop if it Moves to Harlem

By Jeff Mays | June 1, 2012 7:22am
Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey at an event at the Tribeca store Tuesday.
Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey at an event at the Tribeca store Tuesday.
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Max Goldberg

HARLEM — Whole Foods could find many homes in Harlem if the grocery powerhouse were to move to the neighborhood as the company's co-CEO suggested this week.

But local real estate and development experts consider West Harlem, where Columbia University is currently building a 17-acre, $6.4 billion expansion of its Manhattanville campus, a likely favorite location.

"Whole Foods is a brand that has some traction," said Curtis Archer, president and CEO of the Harlem Community Development Corporation.

"I could see them building closer to the west side in the Manhattanville area. You'll have the students and the faculty and the residents who already live there,"

Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, agreed.

"The demographics are shifting in Harlem, that's why the Columbia area sounds feasible," she said.

"You go to the Whole Foods on 14th Street and the lines are around the block and filled with students."

A university source wasn't aware of any negotiations involving Whole Foods, but Columbia has said one of its goals for the project is to bring "community amenities in the ground floors of buildings along West 125th Street, Broadway and Twelfth Avenue," according to the Manhattanville expansion website.

Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey let the news slip during a talk at the chain's Tribeca store that "We are going to be opening up in Harlem." THe statement was followed quickly by "I shouldn't have said that," according to Max Goldberg, founder of the organic food and drink blog livingmaxwell.com.

Whole Foods' spokesman said that the company's real estate and construction arms were "exploring the area" and examining a "couple of options."

Other Harlem spots where Whole Foods might nest are vacant lots on the north side of 125th Street, between Lenox and Fifth avenue not far from Applebees. The site was slated to be a hotel, but the rezoning of 125th Street limited the height of the planned 19-story project.

A possible long shot would be near the Lenox Terrace development at 132nd to 135th streets, between Fifth and Lenox Avenues. The Olnick Organization has been trying to drum up support for a plan that could double the size of the project and include new retail.

The city's Economic Development Corporation recently announced a request for proposals to redevelop an underutilized 160,000 square foot parking garage on 125th Street between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard into office, commercial and retail space. There's no indication Whole Foods is interested in the space.

There was also talk of Whole Foods occupying a ground floor space at a project on Lenox Avenue and 125th Street being developed by NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith.

But several sources, including Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens, said they believe Smith's project is dead due to the difficulty in obtaining financing.

Smith's company did not respond to calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Lynnette Velasco, a spokeswoman for Dickens, said her office has not been approached about a Whole Foods project since it was being considered as part of Smith's project two years ago. She said Dickens was concerned about the store's price point then.

"We are not trying to get a store only certain people go to," said Velasco.
"Inez's thing is that everyone has an opportunity."

Besides the price, Dickens is interested in how many local residents the store would hire, the size of the store and any outreach efforts the company would make in the community.

"Are they socially responsible?" asked Velasco.

The Wall Street Journal reported in February that Whole Foods was offering more sales and discounts to battle the perception of being expensive.

Goldberg said he thought the store would be a good fit in Harlem.

"Whole Foods is committed to changing the way people eat in this country and it's for everyone, not just for specific neighorhoods," he said.