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City still hungry for Whole Foods

Grocery chain has been searching six years for 'perfect' Fremont location

By Chris De Benedetti, Staff Writer.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area.

Fremont—It has all the makings of a perfect marriage.

Whole Foods Market wants to open a store in Fremont, where city officials and citizens have clamored for years for all parties to consummate a deal.

So, what's the holdup?

Fremont Economic Development Director Daren Fields said it's the oldest reason in business: Location, location, location.

Or at least the lack of a flawless one.

"We've been working with Whole Foods continually for four or five years to try to find a location, and we have pitched a number of sites to them," Fields said. "But they believe they'll put only one store in Fremont, so that one site has to be perfect in their minds."

A "perfect" site in this case contains at least 50,000 square feet for the store and additional land for parking, Fields said.

City officials say they have identified two potential Fremont developments big enough to meet those sizable space needs:

  • The "ballpark village" proposed for the A's Cisco Field concept next to Pacific Commons shopping center. However, no talks have been held yet with the ballclub about that, Fields said.

  • A 22-acre project planned by Ohlone College along Mission Boulevard, between Anza Road and Pine Street. But whether a deal is reached there is "up to the college and Sobrato Development (the developer) to decide," Fields said.

Whole Foods Market, an international chain based in Austin, Texas, calls itself "the world's leading natural and organic foods supermarket." It has opened branches in 19 Northern California locations between Santa Rosa and Monterey, including stores in Berkeley, San Francisco and San Ramon, company spokeswoman Erin Couch said. Fremont citizens apparently want one, too. "Residents ask us about an upscale grocery store more than any other item," Fields said.

Whole Foods Market's first flirtation with the city started about six years ago at the Monument Center retail space at Irvington's Five Corners intersection. But the company's eye eventually wandered to the Hub shopping center, at the corner of Fremont Boulevard and Mowry Avenue.

However, that site hit a serious roadblock.

Safeway's exclusive agreement for grocery markets at the Hub prevented Whole Foods from moving in there, Fields said.

Over time, the supermarket chain has limited its search only to spots along Mowry Avenue, which is not in a redevelopment zone. This presents a problem for city officials because it prevents the city from being able to seize property from landowners through eminent domain, Fields said.

With the city's hands somewhat tied, the most that officials can do is try to facilitate a deal within the private sector. Those attempts thus far have failed, Fields said.

"Sometimes you have to add four or five parcels together to get enough land," he added. "And if four (landowners) agree and one says, 'No,' then the deal doesn't happen. That actually has happened. We spent over a year trying to put one parcel together on Mowry."

When asked, Whole Foods Market officials would not comment specifically on potential Fremont sites, other than to say they have no plans to open a store there soon.

Until then, new Bay Area stores are scheduled to open in Oakland this year, and in Dublin and San Jose next year, a company spokeswoman said.

But not yet in Fremont, though not for lack of trying, city officials said.

"It's sort of all around us, but just not here yet," Fields said. "It's part of the retail void currently in Fremont."

Staff writer Chris De Benedetti covers Fremont issues. Contact him at (510) 353-7002 or cdebenedetti@angnewspapers.com.

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