On March 2, Whole Foods will open the doors to its newest store in Lakewood. The neighborhood will be invited to break bread with employees (literally — a 7-foot loaf of challah will provide the ceremonial feast), and many residents in the surrounding radius will rejoice that, more than two years after Minyard’s vacated this building on the corner of Gaston and Abrams, it is once again occupied by a grocery store.

It wasn’t always a given that the old Minyard’s would be transformed into a new Whole Foods. After the Austin-based grocer decided to lease the property, its initial plans were to bulldoze the old building and construct a new one on the triangular site. Instead of backing up to Richmond, plans called for situating the new store against Gaston with parking spaces between Abrams and the store’s entrance, and with a café behind the store overlooking the Lakewood Country Club.

Whole Foods couldn’t do this, however, without requesting a zoning change in the Gaston/Abrams corridor’s planned development (PD) district, created in 1987. That it did, but a little more than two months after the zoning request was filed, Whole Foods announced it was scrapping plans for a new building and instead remodeling the old Minyard’s building.

From an architectural perspective, this decision was “a shame,” says architect Larry Good of Good, Fulton & Farrell, who grew up in Lakewood and was instrumental in leading neighborhood residents and property owners to create the 1987 planned development district.

“I think it would have been good for the neighborhood for Whole Foods to build their new store because it was a beautiful store. It was dynamic,” Good says. “The architectural decisions they were making were good.”

The reason Whole Foods couldn’t simply build the new store was an “issue of orientation” that dates back to the 1987 ordinance, Good says. At that time, the real estate development community was paying a lot of attention to Lakewood, so it appeared as if changes to the neighborhood were imminent.

In the mid-’80s, there was “sort of a development frenzy,” Good says, and places like Oak Lawn started seeing activity. Lakewood residents thought they might be overcome in the next wave, and they were concerned about rumors of a six-story, mixed-use building along Abrams from Prospect to Oram, with office and retail on the ground floor and residential living above.

Seven homeowners associations and six property owners worked to create a planned development district that would deter these kinds of high-rise, office-oriented buildings and instead encourage the kind of retail shops and services the Gaston/Abrams corner has historically housed. Besides things like height limitations, one of the district’s other stipulations was how buildings along Abrams should be situated.

“The vision was that Abrams Road was the historic retail street, and that retail buildings should face Abrams, orient themselves to Abrams” with no parking between the road and the storefronts for any new construction, Good says. The philosophy was a “pedestrian-friendly, neo-traditional” style where the stores line Abrams Road, “sort of like Knox Street,” Good says.

Did the planned development district bring about the desired result? In one sense it did, Good says, because no developers have since presented any plans for high-rise or mixed-use projects.

In fact, Good says, “nothing’s happened. Nothing. There’s been zero development in Lakewood, and it wasn’t because of the [planned development district]; it was because it just fell off people’s radar screens as a place for new development.”

The corner of Gaston and Abrams has been relatively “quiet” in terms of new projects during the past 20 years — “until Whole Foods came along and said, gee, we think we’d like to tear down this old store and build a new one,” Good says.

The decision to instead stick with the Minyard’s structure was “multi-faceted, to say the least,” says Scott Simons, a former Lakewood resident who is now the executive marketing coordinator for Whole Foods Market Southwest in Austin. Ultimately, he says, Whole Foods’ decision to remodel was “a business decision — no surprise there, since we are a business.”

Whole Foods acquired the lease on the triangular property about a year before it submitted its rezoning request. One of the hold-ups was working with the properties’ two different owners. Each had different stipulations about what Whole Foods could build on their respective plots, and design options were limited because no building could cross that invisible property line located toward the southern portion of the triangular lot, Simons says.

“So we were making an investment for a year on the overhead of the property well before we even started talking about what the building was going to look like,” Simons says.

Once those plans were made public, Simons says Whole Foods started receiving feedback indicating the company might be in for a lengthy political battle if it intended to move forward with plans to tear down the old Minyard’s and build a new store.

From “the neighbors themselves, we heard very, very little opposition — in fact, we heard nothing but good things,” Simons says.

“But [we] were seeing some folks from [Dallas’] planning and zoning [commission] have some side conversations and wanting to engage the community in opposing our store design.”

“When we see people in the community or in the city who are against our proposed plan, it usually means the timeline will be stretched out further,” Simons says.

“How much further is a shot in the dark, but when you add that into the fact that we had been paying rent for a year already, we truly went back to our calculators and started doing the math on what any added time would cost and would add to the overhead of our store, and frankly it wasn’t feasible.

“We are a for-profit entity, and if the process had been stretched out another year, the store would not have been profitable.”

Whole Foods’ property lies in Councilman Angela Hunt’s District 14, and Hunt says she “bent over backward” to let Whole Foods executives know the neighborhood wanted the store and that she would work with them to make sure the zoning process was swift. But when Hunt called Whole Foods after hearing the company planned to pull its zoning request, she says she was told speeding up the process wouldn’t make a difference in the company’s decision.

“I asked, ‘Is there any way I can change your mind? Because I love your idea for the store.’ And they said it’s really a business decision,” Hunt says.

What troubled Hunt, she says, was hearing discussion later that Whole Foods had changed its mind because the city wasn’t being cooperative.

“It’s almost as if it was punishment,” Hunt says. “We couldn’t get our new store because it’s not an easy process, and that’s just not the case — at least what I was told.”

Our neighborhood often gets a bad rap in terms of being resistant to change or new development, especially when developers compare the zoning process in Dallas to places such as Frisco or McKinney, Hunt says, but East Dallas is built out in a way that suburbs aren’t. In general, zoning cases here aren’t as lengthy as in places like California, where they can take years, Hunt says, but neither are they typically easy or immediate.

“Anytime anyone wants to do a zoning change in East Dallas, they have to be comfortable in the fact that they’re going to be asked very tough questions and be under scrutiny and bargain with the neighborhood, because East Dallas has been burned too many times by zoning decisions,” Hunt says. “I will always stand by our zoning process and make no apologies for it.”

The Whole Foods zoning case was really a micro issue in the macro situation of our neighborhood, says Bob Weiss, plan commissioner for Councilman Sheffie Kadane’s District 9, which begins just north of the store. Weiss says he wanted to find a “solution that would help enhance the shopping center without breaking the spirit of how that longstanding history was laid out.”

“Lakewood shopping center is an interesting study in urbanscapes and how you make things scalable for neighbors,” Weiss says. “This was just a part of the larger conversation of urban form — how we want the city to look and how we want things to be laid out,” and specifically for the Lakewood Whole Foods store, “how close it could be pulled up to the street, how it could be laid out so it would be accessible, and how you would look at it. What happened on Richmond, Gaston and Abrams was all part of that discussion.”

“In my opinion, adaptive reuse is a great solution, and the end result is everyone gets their grocery store.”

In the midst of Whole Foods’ conversation with neighbors, “one of the big messages we got loud and clear was that they were interested in seeing the building be as green as possible, and ideally LEED-certified,” Simons says. Once the company realized it could fulfill these wishes much more quickly and less expensively with the existing structure, “it was really an easy choice,” he says.

Lakewood and East Dallas are neighborhoods known for their attachment to the familiar. The most recent example was a successful neighborhood campaign to convince Wachovia Bank to abandon a tear-it-down philosophy and instead convert an old gas station-turned-vintage furniture shop into the bank’s new Lakewood branch at Richmond and Abrams.

The formation of the planned development district in 1987 was done in the same spirit of protecting the neighborhood’s remaining history.

But Good believes that in the case of Whole Foods, getting away from the district’s guidelines would have been better for the neighborhood.

“It was a revision to what we did 20 years ago,” Good says of the store’s original plans, “but it wasn’t a bad revision.”

Planned development districts “ought to be evolutionary,” he says. “They shouldn’t freeze land in such a way that it causes it not to be attractive for investment and development.

“And sometimes to revisit them and consider some of the provisions and say, ‘Hey, it’s a new day,’ is not a bad thing.”

Previewing Lakewood Whole Foods’grand opening

Starting at 9:30 a.m. Monday, March 2, neighborhood residents are invited to break bread with Whole Foods employees and executives in a special ceremony at the new Lakewood location. The store officially opens at 10 a.m.

The new Lakewood Whole Foods
is roughly 1.5 times the size of the Lower Greenville store, which means, essentially, more room for more stuff. Here are a few of the new features:

• A 10-foot high and 50-foot wide mural
telling the story of Lakewood’s history will greet visitors as soon as they walk into the store.

• “Basically, we’re going to be LEED-certified; it’s just a matter of what level,”
says Scott Simons, Whole Foods Market Southwest executive marketing coordinator. LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating on designs that reduce environmental impact while improving the occupant’s health and well being.

• Creating dining areas as a “gathering stop for friends and family”
was important, says store team leader Carmen Fort. The new Allegro Coffee Bar opens at 7 a.m. daily, and customers can grab beverages and breakfast — pastries, house-made breakfast tacos, yogurt parfaits and kolaches. For lunch or dinner, the new Bluebonnet BBQ Smokehouse offers brisket, slow-smoked with hickory for 12 hours, as well as smoked pork, ribs and chicken. Fresh buffalo and grass-fed beef also are on the menu.

• The staff includes a concierge, or personal shopper,
and during the month of March, customers can hand over their grocery lists or dinner party menus and receive their first personal shopping experience for free.

• Most sections in the new store will be bigger
with expanded product selections. Just a couple of examples include a “Gourmet to Go” section three times larger than the Greenville store in terms of selection and a doubled-in-size dairy department and frozen food section.

The Whole Foods Market on Lower Greenville is the oldest in the chain and has been operating for 22 years. It will close its doors for the last time Sunday, March 1, at 5 p.m.

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