Harlem is Waiting/Bracing for the ‘Whole Foods Effect’

By Gregory Cagle

Whole Foods Market on 125th Street, Harlem. Photo by Gregory Cagle.

Harlemites have been wondering about the project on 125th St., more importantly Whole Foods Market opening. The original date was scheduled for spring 2016.

In 2013 workers began preparing the long vacant Lenox Ave. lot, the site of a soon-to-open Whole Foods Market. Back then, the operators of the upscale food store had hoped to open as early as 2015. That didn’t work out a smoothly as planned.

Many Harlem residents worry that the store will bring more people to the historical area, increasing rents and putting small businesses in jeopardy. Some think that this the caused delays but a Whole Foods representative says they are right on schedule.

“We’re looking forward to joining the Harlem community,” said Whole Foods spokesman Michael Sinatra, “The project was moving forward as planned.” “I’m just adding that the company’s first Brooklyn store took nearly eight years to complete,” says Sinatra.

With chain retailers like Burlington Coat Factory, American Eagle, Bed Bath and Beyond already open, there has been a decline in business for smaller stores. Bodegas and corner stores have been the anchor in most urban communities in the five boroughs and Harlem is no exception.

“I do not know how we will survive too much longer with the change in the area,” said Ashka Choury the manager of Paramount Decorators, which sells home décor goods. “There’s a fifty percent decline in business since Bed, Bath and Beyond opened so I cannot imagine how grocery stores will make it once Whole Foods is finally opened,” says Choury.

The closest supermarket in the area is City Fresh Market located on 3rd avenue and 121st, it’s now open 24-hours a day. Pioneer on Lenox Avenue and 130th street also extended its hours but this was in the aftermath of Pathmark’s closing.

“We know it’s going to happen but the longer it takes the better chance we have keeping loyal customers,” says Chris Martinez asst. manager at Pioneer. “We know our prices will be cheaper but Whole Foods is known for quality and getting people to eat healthier, we just have to stay in the race and hope it works out that we do not lose a lot of customers,” says Martinez.

Whole Foods Market on 125th Street, Harlem. Photo by Gregory Cagle.

On the other hand, the Whole Foods store opening won’t just offer upscale groceries. It will likely bring a boost to the neighborhood’s real estate market, too. This is what has been termed “The Whole Foods Effect.” This is when the popular retailer moves into or near a neighborhood, you can expect to see property value increase at a higher rate than usual because people want easy access to their favorite place to shop. The reasoning is people will pay a premium for the convenience of being near their favorite stores. And proximity to a store like Whole Foods, often thought of as more high-end than other grocery stores, adds an air of prestige to a neighborhood.

So for some people the sooner the better. It’s hardly news that a robust retail scene can improve an area’s home values. But rarely has this relationship been so clearly spelled out as in the case of Whole Foods. “We have a one-bedroom two blocks away for $1,800,” says Donna Synmoie co-owner and manager of Finite Homes on Lenox Avenue. Once Whole Foods opens she thinks she could easily get $2,100 to $230o.

Harlem is already a community that is going through major gentrification the only difference in a few months is how well they handle the “Whole Foods Effect.”