A couple of thoughts on Whole Foods’ plans for the old Minyard’s location, which I’ve seen but wasn’t allowed to photograph or copy. I can’t say that I completely agree with Whole Foods’ strategy here, which I would guess is following the old "the fewer people who get a chance to weigh in on our design, the less headaches we’ll have" philosophy. They have an excellent site layout that breaks up the massive parking lot in a way that Minyard’s did not, and the proposed landscaping (while just generally sketched out) looks to significantly improve the frontages on Richmond and Gaston while also providing a much better facade facing Abrams.

As for the architecture, you can read fellow blogger Norm Alston’s post here if you want an architect’s analysis of the same building facade drawings that I saw. From a layman’s standpoint, I don’t buy Whole Foods’ contention that the building reflects the neighborhood’s architecture, but I can’t say it doesn’t fit in, either. I asked no less than three Whole Foods reps which other store the proposed Lakewood one most resembles; all declined to specify one. So I’ll go out on a limb here: Check out the Preston/Forest Whole Foods (we’ll get some pictures posted here later this week). Even though it’s part of a strip center, the feel that I get from looking at the outside of that one is about the same feeling I have looking at the drawings for this one. Hey, it’s a big building being constructed by a national company; it’s going to have a certain amount of aluminum and glass, just because.

And one more important comment before you wade into the rest of this post: I am not a disinterested observer. I live close enough to the building site that my property value could be affected. The way Minyard’s was configured didn’t hurt our home value, but the proposed Whole Foods design could boost it a bit, since my neighbors and I benefit from the way the building looks from the Richmond and Gaston views. I’m trying to be impartial here, but just be aware of where I’m coming from.

So off we go…

1) If you’ve been following this deal, you know Whole Foods is requesting a setback variance from PD 281, which has governed development in the Lakewood area (development flanking Abrams Parkway from Junius to Goliad) since 1988. There are 41 pages in the special purpose district document, and for a layman, it’s a pretty dense read. But here’s a link to the PD document if you want to give it a whack (note that you’ll have to download the pdf if you want to read the PD at this link).

2) Distilling the whole thing down to a simple but controversial issue (for some), here it is: Existing zoning in the PD doesn’t allow a setback from Abrams greater than 15 feet from the front property line, or 25 feet from the projected street curb. Give or take, that’s roughly about how far the Minyard’s building is from Abrams now. But Whole Foods is proposing to move the building about half-way across the lot from Abrams, with the minimal setback on Richmond and Gaston instead of Abrams. The problem: The PD was designed primarily to govern development along Abrams and, from what I can tell, generally anticipated dealing with smaller (2,000-3,000-4,000 SF buildings or so) lots and construction; the PD didn’t necessarily anticipate handling a Whole Foods-type project, which will be 40,000-SF-plus.

3) The PD worked well with the Wachovia Bank building up the street; requiring the bank to snug its building up to Abrams within the required 15/25 foot setback makes sense, because pushing the parking from the front street to the back improves the appearance of the building from the street and generally makes it conform (much more than Wachovia ever intended to on its own) with the Comerica/Ellen Terry retail strip across Richmond and the general feel of the Lakewood Shopping Center further south.

4) Since the PD requires a developer to convene a meeting of representatives from each of a number of neighborhood homeowner’s associations to review plans/variance requests, the PD gives neighbors a huge say in neighborhood development, since any development variance from the PD must be approved by the City Plan Commission (volunteer appointees by city council reps who generally live in the neighborhood they’re representing) and the City Council (people like Sheffie Kadane and Angela Hunt, who live around here just like the rest of us). If a developer can’t satisfy the neighborhood representatives identified in the PD, you can bet they’re going to complain about the project to their City Plan Commission and Council reps, and you can bet those people will think twice before approving a PD variance and telling their neighbors to stuff it.

5) Whole Foods is in the process of convening the neighborhood group right now, and I can tell you one thing for sure: They are not going to agree at first. Some don’t mind Whole Foods’ request to situate the new building farther from Abrams, while others are hell-bent on making sure that the grocer follows the PD. Perhaps the neighborhood group will be able to arrive at a compromise that they can all accept and that Whole Foods will still want to build; then again, perhaps not. If you’ve followed requests for development variances in this neighborhood over the years, you know that more than a few qualified people with interesting projects have wound up riddled with bullets and back-pedaling out of here.

6) If Whole Foods can’t come up with a plan the neighborhood reps can agree on, the grocer is likely to take the often-fatal step of seeking approval for the variance from the Plan Commission, which will put commissioners Neil Emmons and Bob Weiss on the spot since the overall Plan Commission vote will likely follow their lead (that’s how it works, with the commissioner in the affected area often able to veto a deal he or she doesn’t like). Failure to obtain Plan Commission approval would force Whole Foods to follow the PD or appeal to the Council to override the Plan Commission, then putting Sheffie and Angela on the hot seat (again at the Council level, individual councilmen representing the area that is home to the proposed development have an unwritten but virtual veto authority over projects they don’t like). So those four people, failing an amicable meeting of the minds among neighborhood reps, will make the call.

7) I believe the whole thing will come down to this: Either Whole Foods builds essentially the brand-new building that it is proposing or it winds up remodeling or refurbishing the existing Minyard’s building, which also doesn’t completely conform with the PD but remains grandfathered in. I don’t believe there’s going to be much of a third option, since Whole Foods — as primarily a grocery store as opposed to a developer — doesn’t want to vary its building plans for one store here in Lakewood so much that it can’t run the store with the same efficiency and general plan that it runs its other stores nationwide.

8) One potential side benefit of this deal for every other retailer/shop in the Lakewood Shopping Center area: The connection from the Lakewood neighborhood east of Abrams could actually be made remarkably better if Whole Foods and the neighborhood reps focus on developing Richmond as a real pedestrian environment. Right now, other than a few brave souls on foot or bike, the rest of us need a car to get from home to the Minyard’s site or other Lakewood Shopping Center stores. Gaston is a scary street to walk along (believe me, I know), and Richmond just north of the Minyard’s building isn’t much better. Whole Foods’ plans envision Richmond as a pedestrian/bicycle environment; it looks great on paper, but I think this is where having Whole Foods execs from Austin driving the deal is hurting us here in the neighborhood. If neighborhood reps, Whole Foods and the city put their heads together, they can turn Richmond into something we really need here: a veritable gateway from the neighborhood to the entire shopping area. All it will take is some planning and perhaps a few inexpensive traffic changes prior to cutting Whole Foods loose with their construction plans, whatever they turn out to be. But if there’s no focus on that critical link from neighborhood to shopping center prior to making the Whole Foods decision — if there isn’t a significant effort to make Richmond easier to traverse by foot or bike — it will never happen. Taking control of this issue, even more than the setback scuffle, will have a critical impact on the neighborhood’s future development as either a new pedestrian mecca or continuing along the "you need a car to get around" path.

So there you have it: A longwinded explanation of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we can expect to play out during the next 60 days, when this deal will likely be resolved one way or another.

Some have suggested Whole Foods will ditch the entire deal if they don’t get their way with the proposed site plan; I don’t think that will happen. The existing Minyard’s building is still about twice as large as the Greenville store, so simply updating that building puts Whole Foods in a better spot than it is now.

But Whole Foods has put forth plans for a striking new building with amenities that will set a good tone for future development in and around Lakewood, and if we shoot it down here and now, we’ll definitely be making it clear to future developers that even though we welcome them to the neighborhood, they’d better not try to do anything that is too far afield from what’s already here.

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