Big-box boogeyman be damned: The latest push to bring major retail to Carytown is sparking all kinds of local merchant angst and Facebook organizing — all in the name of keeping the city's homegrown shopping district pure and largely chain-free.
The developers behind plans to redevelop the former Verizon building at Nansemond Street and Ellwood Avenue have been on the campaign trail since early summer. In order to turn the 3-acre site into a shopping center, it must receive a special use permit from the city. (It's zoned as a residential office district.)
Almost immediately, fears of Wal-Mart and the big-boxification of Carytown took hold. Developers plan to reuse the136,000-square-foot Verizon building, which seems large enough to handle a major discount retailer. But for practical purposes it isn't.
More likely, developers seem to be pushing to sign a specialty grocery store to anchor the center. The upper floor will be removed, raising the ceiling, and the lower level would be used for parking, says Kevin Nielsen, a local developer working with Maryland Financial Realty on the project.
All told, the available floor space is only 41,000 square feet.
Actually, a perfect fit for specialty grocer. “Whole Foods is at the top of our list,” Nielsen says. “It's not going to be a Target; it's not going to be a Wal-Mart.
But landing a specialty grocer also might be problematic. There are two supermarkets, Kroger and Martin's Food Market, and Ellwood Thompson's, the locally owned natural foods market, within three square blocks along Carytown's eastern edge. Kroger also recently began a $10 million expansion of its store, which will include pumping up its natural food offerings.
“For the size of the market — to have four supermarkets doesn't make a whole lot of sense,” says Brian Glass, senior vice president of retail brokerage for Grubb & Ellis/Harrison & Bates. “I don't think the Carytown marketplace can handle another supermarket.”
Whole Foods may not be the best fit anyway. Glass considers Trader Joe's, which tends to operate smaller stores that appeal to more mainstream shoppers, as fitting in with the more eclectic Fan and Museum districts. It's no done deal, Nielsen says.
If things go as the developers hope, construction wouldn't start until early next year. First they must convince the city that the project won't create traffic nightmares, a key gripe of Don't Big Box Carytown, a group that formed in late summer to oppose the project.
“Our focus and main concern is the traffic,” says Paige Bishop, director of marketing for Ellwood Thompson's and Thompson's CafAc. Competing with Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, she says, isn't that big of a concern. The store's been competing with Kroger and Ukrop's, now Martin's, for long enough.
The developers are incredulous that there are groups out there trying to spread misinformation. All they're trying to do is bring much-needed retail to Carytown, says Robb Shinn, a spokesman for the group, adding that the total project represents a $20 million investment.
And, he says, there will be no Wal-Mart. “This is not a big box under any reasonable definition,” Shinn says.