JPNC seeks benefits deal

April 1, 2011
By

David Taber

Grocer to hold May meeting

HYDE SQ.—A special committee of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council formed to address Whole Foods’ planned move to Hyde Square decided at a March 15 meeting to focus on negotiating a community benefits deal with the store.

A Whole Foods spokesperson did not respond to Gazette questions about that possibility, but did say the market plans to hold a long-awaiting community meeting in May.

After three hours of discussion, five council members at the March 15 meeting settled on goals for the committee, which also included developing a “community vision” for what kind of business development the council would like to see in JP; and exploring what role, if any, the council can play in encouraging an alternate use for the space Whole Foods plans to move into at 415 Centre St.

The goal of gathering community input ahead of potential negotiations with the grocer—which could lead to a formal community benefits agreement (CBA)—received strong support from council members. But the other two goals were sources of some controversy for the council members and about 30 community members attending the meeting at First Baptist Church on Centre Street.

CBAs are signed documents, usually between residents and large institutional or commercial neighbors, that can deal with a range of issues, from when deliveries will be made to whether community members will be allowed to park on-site. They sometimes describe financial support or infrastructure improvements the commercial or institutional neighbor plans to make.

Whole Foods spokesperson Robin Rehfield did not respond to questions about a CBA.

Addressing parking and local hiring, she said, “We will encourage [employees] to walk, bike or take public transportation to work as we will not be offering [employee] parking. Our goal is to hire as many [employees] from the local JP community as possible, so the parking spots are reserved for our shoppers.”

She said Whole Foods plans to host a “town hall” community meeting in JP in May.

JPNC member Jesse White, who put forward a successful proposal that the JPNC oppose Whole Foods at a March 7 council meeting, said the only drawback of attempting to jumpstart a conversation about community benefits is, “It assumes that Whole Foods is coming…[But] if Whole Foods does decide to come, I assume everyone would want them to be a strong community partner.”

Since the Gazette first reported in February on Whole Foods’ plans to moves to the neighborhood, some community members have expressed concerns about the store heralding a wave of gentrification that will make the neighborhood unaffordable for working families. Others have expressed concerns about Whole Foods’ commitment to local-hiring, about the traffic and parking problems that the store could create.

Part of the JPNC’s Whole Foods resolution, which the council passed on a split 9-8 vote, said “[W]e hope our community can work together to find an alternative to Whole Foods that will strengthen Jamaica Plain’s culture of diversity [and] locally-owned businesses, and [be welcoming] to people of all economic statuses.”

But Whole Foods has a long-term lease for the 415 Centre St. space, and most of the council members in attendance said they are dubious about the possibility of finding institutions or businesses that would openly discuss wanting to move into a space that is under lease.

If somebody is thinking about alternative uses for the space, “They are probably doing that quietly,” White said at the meeting. In the unlikely event that an open conversation about uses for the space started, “We would be willing and open to being supportive of that,” she said.

Members of Whose Foods?, a coalition opposed to Whole Foods’ move to the neighborhood, pushed the JPNC to prioritize looking for alternative uses.

“It’s important to do and it’s something the council could take a stance on, if it felt like it,” Whose Foods? coalition member Ben Mauer said at the meeting.

Council member Steve Backman proposed that the committee draft a “one to two page statement about what we think is appropriate for commercial development in JP. The council has similar positions supporting affordable housing, transit-oriented development and “healthy” housing.

Council chair Andrea Howley was among those at the meeting who noted that JP is already home to a number of national chains, including CVS Pharmacy, Dunkin’ Donuts and Coldwell Banker. It would be difficult and possibly pointless for the JPNC to come up with a list of criteria for what businesses are welcome in the neighborhood, she said.

Council member Steve Laferriere said he thinks the council position can be crafted “positively,” so that it lists criteria the council would like to see, like local ownership, local hiring and community reinvestment.

Laferriere, who is heading up the ad hoc committee, will present the committee’s proposed goals for approval at the March 29 JPNC meeting, after the Gazette’s deadline. The committee can seat up to 10 community members. Council members said they hope to recruit both proponents and opponents of the new grocery store.