Last week’s announced closure of Whole Foods began a broader discussion on the issue of the downtown. During a presentation last week before the city council, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, Diane Parro, presented to the council the results of a survey about the health of the Davis Downtown.
The downtown scored well in the survey in terms of being attractive and safe, but 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.
There are a number of different viewpoints on the cause of the closure – which, while it was one of nine stores closing due in part to market changes, the fact is that Whole Foods chose to close their Davis store.
Stewart Savage, the executive director of the Davis Downtown, told the Vanguard on Monday, “I am certainly surprised by the closure of Whole Foods. It was a valuable resource for downtown businesses and nearby residents. I spoke with people who frequented Whole Foods and they are extremely disappointed about the closure. Whole Foods was convenient for them. Now they need to find alternatives for their weekly shopping.”
Another downtown merchant told the Vanguard that if you look at Whole Foods in other locations, people are lining up to get in and willing to pay premium prices. That was apparently not happening in Davis and something that should be looked at more closely.
The overall issue of the health of the downtown is of paramount importance. As we reported last week, some have expressed the 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 the 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.
Stewart Savage told the Vanguard, “We have to look at this as an evolution of our downtown. We have seen quite a bit of change over the years. We have seen high vacancy rates in the downtown, low vacancy rates, businesses leave, businesses come on board, etc. There is a constant ebb and flow.”
For Diane Parro, she see this as an opportunity, with the timing very good to look at the city’s Core Area Specific 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 of which people expressed concern 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.”
Stewart Savage is also looking at this from an optimistic viewpoint.
“What I see now are a number of circumstances coming together and creating a short-term increase in downtown vacancies,” he said. But he truly believes, “Downtown Davis is a great place to have a business and I am looking forward to new businesses coming to the downtown to fill those vacancies.”
But others are less optimistic and they point to the city’s flagging retail sales base and a rapidly changing commercial landscape.
The good news is that the city will have the opportunity to study these issues as it updates the core area plan, but the bad news is that a challenging situation has gotten that much more challenging.
—David M. Greenwald reporting