Whole Foods signals Hyde Park potential for big business

The announcement that Whole Foods will make its mark in Hyde Park in 2014 has community members talking about its place in the neighborhood.

By Crystal Tsoi

Following the recent announcement that Whole Foods Market will open at 51st Street and Lake Park Avenue in 2014, new details have emerged regarding the specifics of the organic foods supermarket’s decision to come to Hyde Park, as well as an increased response from the community.

Antheus Capital, which will own and manage Whole Foods’s property in Hyde Park, has worked closely with former Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and Interim Alderman Shirley Newsome for years to bring retail to Hyde Park, according to Director of Community Development at Antheus Capital Peter Cassel.

“It used to be that developers picked retailers but that is no longer true,” Cassel said. “We didn’t pick Whole Foods. Whole Foods picked Hyde Park.”

Talks about possible retailers coming to the development on the southwest corner of East 51st Street and South Lake Park Avenue started about a year ago in the midst of a wave of retail expansion in neighboring Harper Court.

According to Cassel, several national supermarket chains expressed interest in expanding into Hyde Park, “but in the end, Whole Foods was the retailer that was able to finalize a lease.”

“I think that the people over at Whole Foods know who shops at their stores and they know Whole Foods best. They’ve put a lot of thought into it,” Cassel said when asked about whether Whole Foods’s high prices will appeal to the residents of Hyde Park.

In a Chicago Sun-Times article on May 5, Michael Bashaw, president of Whole Foods’ Midwest region indicated that the company’s decision for real estate development in a certain area “requires a complex set of circumstances be met, including available and appropriate property,” as well as the appropriate demographics.

The “mixed-use project” consists of 110,000 square feet of retail and office space along with 179 residential units. Designed by Jeanne Gang and Studio Gang Architects, the project is expected to cost around $130 million and set to break ground in the fall of 2012. Construction will be completed and stores and residences will open in 2014.

In addition to the arrival of the new supermarket, the well-known Hyde Park establishment The Original Pancake House is also expected to sign a lease and continue to do business at the newly-developed retail space.

Upon opening, Whole Foods is expected to employ 125 employees with their 18th store in the metropolitan area, according to an May 12 article in the Medill Report of Northwestern University. According to Cassel, feedback from residents in the Fourth Ward has been mostly positive as residents welcome the appearance of larger stores.

But some are wondering why there is an absence of a larger variety of types of retail in Hyde Park. “Most people are still wondering where they can get a pair of socks,” Cassel said.

Some have criticized the appearance of Whole Foods as unnecessary to an area that they think is already well served by its local grocers.

Fourth-year Emily Lines feels conflicted about the development. “I am frustrated with Whole Foods as a company in the way their food is sold and marketed and priced,” she said. “I think that it will be inaccessible to many of the inhabitants of Hyde Park.”

Gerard Olack, a University research scientist who shops at Hyde Park Produce, sees Whole Foods’s presence in a positive light. “They tend to have a good reputation. I don’t think it’ll be that bad for the local shops here,” he said.

“With the Whole Foods lease in place, we are confident that we can secure a construction loan,” Cassel said.

The appearance of Whole Foods may perhaps foreshadow the coming of brighter retail days for Hyde Park as both the University and the local community put effort into attracting bigger names to the neighborhood.