On Tuesday evening, the City’s Chief Innovation Officer, Diane Parro, presented to the council the results of a survey about the health of the Davis Downtown. As the Vanguard had previously reported, while the downtown scored well in the survey in terms of being attractive and safe, the majority of people did not agree that downtown fulfills basic shopping and entertainment needs.
Among the chief concerns as surveyed by the public were the lack of parking and empty store fronts.
As if on cue, on Wednesday, Whole Foods announced that it would be leaving Davis.
“As we work to position Whole Foods Market for long-term success, we have carefully evaluated our portfolio of stores to align with a more thoughtful growth strategy,” corporate spokesperson Betsy Harden said in a statement. “As a result, we have decided to close the Davis store.”
She added, “This was not a decision that was made lightly and we are working closely with all affected team members to find alternative positions at nearby stores where possible.”
The store could close as soon as Sunday. This caught a number of people by surprise. Some have attributed the problem to insufficient traffic and sales. And some see it as a broader problem than just one store.
Then again, as yesterday’s article in the Washington Post attests, Whole Foods is now struggling as a whole, even though “[o]rganic food has never been so popular among American consumers.”
The Post reports that on Wednesday the company “reported what is arguably its worst performance in a decade, announcing its sixth consecutive quarter of falling same-store sales and cutting its outlook for the year.” Just 16 months ago, “Whole Foods predicted it would grow its 470 U.S. locations to more than 1,200.”
The company announced it is closing nine stores – the most it has ever closed at one time. But that doesn’t explain why they would close in Davis, a community that would seem to fit closely with the organic foods company.
But, digging down into the specifics, the problem seems to be that organics has gone from a fringe interest to thoroughly mainstream. Whole Foods in Davis always had to compete with the more established and less commercialized Davis Food Co-Op and perhaps was never really able to make inroads, despite the Food Co-Op having its own problems during that time.
Dianne Parro noted that the city has a lot of grocery opportunity and therefore believes “it’s probably exceptionally hard to be a grocer when there’s a lot of competition.” She wants to get more information as to why Davis was one of nine stores targeted for closure.
The question Davis will have to ponder in light of store front vacancies and a seeming lack of shopping and entertainment options for many community members is whether the Davis Downtown is struggling.
We got a mixture of responses off the record. There is one belief that we are seeing only local people interested in shopping in locally-owned stores, which has led to declining sales over times. These problems are exacerbated by the lack of parking and the view that Davis has become anti-car.
On the other hand, some argue that Davis Downtown is fine – that the lack of parking indicates a vitality and that the vacant storefront problem is an isolated condition, associated with a single commercial property owner which will resolve itself over time.
Of course it seems possible, even likely, that both views have merit. For the city’s Chief Innovation Officer Diane Parro, the timing could not be better to take a look at the city’s core area plan.
“I think the exciting opportunity to address all of this and more is going to be with the outreach opportunities of the Core Area Specific Plan,” she told the Vanguard. “That could not be coming at a better time, frankly.”
This is being undertaken as the highest priority for the city in the General Plan update. That shows a clear focus by the city and city council for the downtown. Ms. Parro argued that this wasn’t important just because of the turnover of the Brinley properties, but also the ongoing need to address parking.
About the things that people expressed concern about in the survey, Ms. Parro said, “We’re really concerned about most of that too.
“It’s not easy to run a business anywhere, but it’s very hard in Davis for reasons outside our control like people’s changing buying patterns to things that are happening just here like a Whole Foods closed,” she said, “that changes the marketplace.
“Now is the time that really examining what the whole community is interested, in downtown, is the best action we could be taking,” she said. “Timing is perfect.”
Diane Parro said that the problems associated with the Brinley turnover were not really anticipated, but she added, “We’re still at the beginning of the story. When we get to the middle or the end of the story, we all might look back and say that was great. Boy it was hard to live through the first year, or two, but look at something happened.
“Yes, I totally acknowledge that we don’t like to see empty storefronts, we don’t like any of the things that go with that,” she said. “But I do hope… that eventually we’ll look back and say something good came out of it.”
At the same time, she acknowledged, “I’m not at all sure that there’s an answer to the question of ‘what do we need to do.’” She said it has to be much more of the community’s best thinking. “It needs to start at the council level with embracing the whole community and thinking about what people want our downtown to be.”
She said that a large number of people have contacted her in the last day or so to opine as to what should now go into the spot vacated by Whole Foods.
But then part of the problem is that opinions vary on what people want to see in the downtown. As Ms. Parro put it, “What I think is great and what you think is great are different.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting