The responses began flooding in as soon as activist Paul Williams posted his message in the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association’s newsletter. Within weeks, he had forwarded 175 anguished pleas, the cries of neighbors, friends, distressed citizens, to Larry Clark of Donatelli and Klein, a Bethesda-based developer. “There were tales of woe,” says Clark. “‘There’s nowhere to shop,’ ‘We travel to Fresh Fields when we can,’ etc. That kind of stuff.”
The cause for the outpouring? Williams is spearheading a campaign to bring a Fresh Fields store to the old Children’s Hospital site at 13th and W Streets NW. He put his notice in the association’s bulletin in the hopes of helping Donatelli and Klein impress decision-makers at the supermarket chain.
“Everybody is so excited about it,” says Williams. “Everyone’s for it. Even Dupont Circlethey want better food than Safeway.” Nowadays, “people here drive all the way to Wisconsin Avenue for food.” Williams argues that a store at the 13th Street location would also draw relatively affluent customers from neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, and Logan Circle.
Community activists have been trying for years to bring a supermarket into the U Street corridor. But plopping down a shiny Fresh Fields just a stone’s throw from the late-night stomping grounds of club crawlers would do more than just satisfy the area’s grocery shopping requirements. The store would essentially raise the flag of retail gentrification over the as yet unconquered Iwo Jima of the U Street area.
And the idea of people driving from other parts of town to a plot of land that has been languishing for two decades would also show that it’s safe to move your big income back into the city. “There’s people who live behind these row houses who make $100,000 a year,” explains Clark, the site’s project manager for Donatelli and Klein. Although the area’s low-income families might want something a little more basic than an upscale grocer, Clarkwhose firm stands to reap the profits off new upscale urban arrivalsstresses the advantages for all. “We want to get this site that hasn’t been on the tax rolls for 20 years to do something to help the community, to produce something,” he says.
Clark won’t get into the specifics of what’s going on with the supermarket, but he makes it pretty clear that both he and the neighbors are trying to sell potential commercial tenants on the yuppification of at least one sliver of the neighborhood. In recent years, old neighborhood Victorians south of U Street have become increasingly popular as fix-up projects for relatively affluent newcomers, particularly young families and gay couples.
Fresh Fields probably doesn’t need the hint. According to Chris Hitt, the mid-Atlantic president of parent company Whole Foods, the chain puts so much brainpower into researching each store’s demographic hunting ground that it could probably figure out the preferred salmon mousse recipe of each D.C. census tract along the way. “You start by looking at your demographic data,” says Hitt. For his chain, the three keys are educational level, density of population, and income level.
But just as with choosing your brand of soy milk, that’s only the beginning. “We start a much more sophisticated analysis, using psychographic data,” he says. “We have 60-plus different clusters of psychographic information.” A consulting firm processes the psychographic arcana in order to determine whether the market’s brow level matches its income: It’s one thing to be rich and another to want to spend your dough on organic mushrooms.
Those qualities are most commonly found in urban shoppers, according to Hitt. While Fresh Fields has been a predominantly suburban chain, Whole Foods’ original flagship, Bread & Circus, has more metropolitan roots. Since the merger a year ago, Fresh Fields has taken to opening stores in urban areas, including one in central Philadelphia. (On the other hand, they’re not exactly in the middle of the hurly-burly: Hitt lists stores in Tenleytown and Arlington, as well as Georgetown, as being “urban.”)
So far, there’s no word as to Fresh Fields’ plans. But the camaraderie between neighbor and developer in the case of the prospective store runs against the crabby cliché typical in Washington. Ordinarily, it’s a poor or middle-class neighborhood, underserved by the grocery titans, that’s complaining about getting the shaft. Giant Food, the dominant area grocer, hasn’t opened a D.C. store since 1979. Safeway has a better track record, yet overall there are only three supermarkets serving the entire portion of the city east of the Anacostia river.
City political gadfly John Capozzi e-mailed in favor of the 13th Street Fresh Fields. But he says the real scandal is that the city has sat on its hands instead of trying to attract an establishment like Shopper’s Food Warehouse, which he says is the region’s lowest-priced supermarket. At present, Shopper’s has no D.C. stores. “No one’s really done anything,” says Capozzi. “Giant and Safeway have the market locked up.”
Even those chains need their feet held to the fire, says Paul Savage, who spearheaded a drive that lured a new Safeway store to Good Hope Road SE earlier this year. He says that store is making buckets of money, but that the cause still requires vigilance. “We’ve been on their case, big-time, to preserve quality and selection,” he says.
That’s a problem that shoppers at any prospective new upscale market won’t have to face. In the retail world, money talksand one of the things it says is that managers had best not cut corners on service. At a store like Fresh Fields, it’s gold cards, not community activists, that keep the establishment honest.
Savage says that despite their fast talk about demographic studies, chains are blind to opportunities in urban neighborhoods. It took years of lobbying by Savage and his neighbors, who live in the wealthy Hillcrest section of Southeast, to convince Safeway that it could turn a profit on Good Hope Road. Safeway is now thriving, but the nearby Skyland shopping center is moribund. “If you look at income, Skyland would have been developed along with Good Hope Marketplace,” says Savage.
(Michael S. Morton, manager of business development and business services for the Marshall Heights Community Development Corp., says that factors like absenteeism, crime, falling population density, and a rigid bureaucracy dim corporate hopes for profits in much of the city. And supermarket chains talk of the need for hard-to-find space in order to build their standard 55,000-square-foot buildings with large parking lots whenever they open a new store.)
Yet Savage says it all boils down to leadershipthe kind that can convince chain stores to invest in D.C. and view its underserved residents as a source of profit, not hassle. “It doesn’t take a genius to do something on K Street,” he says. “It takes work to bring goods and services to where they’re needed.” CP