By Nicholas Duchesne
Next year’s slated development of the Cafritz property will prominently feature a Whole Foods Market among the planned residential and retail space. When the grocery store opens, however, it will better serve the larger metropolitan community than the town of Riverdale Park itself.
“Whole Foods is a big piece of it,” said Alan Thompson, the councilman for Ward 2 in Riverdale Park. Thompson said that the Cafritz’s previous plan to develop the 37-acres along the eastern side of Route 1 fell apart back in 2007 when Whole Foods wouldn’t commit. The development got back on track once the store teamed up with the developers and “a fully executed lease was signed,” said Chip Reed, the Cafritz’s attorney.
Since the first Whole Foods Market opened in 1980 in Austin, Texas, the company has expanded around the country. They currently operate over 300 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, with eight stores in Maryland.
The store is known for both its high quality products and its subsequently high price tags. Compared to Shoppers, a grocery chain with a store 3 miles north on Route 1, the cost for a basket of products like milk, bread, eggs and chicken breasts, among others, is 35 percent more expensive.
“The prices are a little higher. It’s a tradeoff for better quality fruits and vegetables, but I think it’s worth it,” said Diann Howland of University Park.
Outside of two stores in Baltimore City, the other six locations are in high-income areas like Bethesda, Friendship Heights, and Annapolis.
There’s a Whole Foods in Rockville, where the median family income is $104,913. Another is in Gaithersburg, which has an income level of $93,403. Of all the locations outside Baltimore none have median family incomes below $75,000.
In Riverdale Park, the median income is only $53,594, well below the Maryland state average of $85,000. For many families in the town, a 35 percent price hike in groceries is not a viable option. “It doesn’t serve the majority of current residents. People don’t make enough money to shop there,” said Joe Kelly, a Riverdale Park resident.
While Riverdale Park itself may not have the customer base to support a Whole Foods, the area definitely does. The development’s location along Route 1 means that tens of thousands of commuters going to and from Washington D.C. will pass by everyday. “We expect a lot of it to be pass through traffic,” said Thompson.
The development will also come with its own customer base built in. According to Reed, there are plans for 995 residential units, including 126 townhouses and condominiums. Students at the University of Maryland also represent a potential market. “A lot of students start to care about eating healthy,” said Hallie Lease, a sophomore at Maryland. “If they don’t have to pay themselves, Whole Foods would be awesome.”
The community is split on whether or not development is a good idea. The Riverdale Park town council is fully on board, having approved the rezoning of the Cafritz site from single-family homes to mixed use with a unanimous 5-0 vote. “It will really help with town finances,” said Thompson. “The tax base will increase by a good bit.”
While the Cafritzes will pay for the development of the property and construction costs, they are currently working out a deal with the town on the construction of a bridge over the railroad tracks at the eastern edge of the property. According to a letter written by councilman Jonathan Ebbeler, the developers would pay 50 percent of the bridge costs, up to a maximum of $5 million.
Kelly thinks that that is a bad deal for the town. “It is a poorly worded and poorly negotiated condition,” he said. “The developer has a limited liability in it. They don’t have to spend a penny over $5 million. The taxpayers have unlimited liability.
Funds to pay for the town’s portion would come from Tax Increment Financing, or a TIF. According to Ebbeler’s letter, “A TIF uses future tax revenue generated within the borders of the development to pay for current capital improvements,” like the bridge.
The specifics of the TIF have yet to be worked out according to Reed, but when they are it will be determined who is on the hook for the money if this future revenue fails to materialize as expected.
With Whole Foods’ popularity in the area, the threat of the development failing is reduced. Either way, many residents of Riverdale Park are preparing to deal with years of construction and an increase in traffic, all for a grocery store and development that many of them will never use.