What Whole Foods' opening means - and doesn't mean - about Midtown Detroit

Jun 5, 2013

You may have heard that Whole Foods Market opened a store in Detroit today.

The grocery chain has a reputation for pricey organic fare.

So you might think its decision to set up shop in Detroit means there’s a little pocket of the Motor City that’s thriving. And you'd be right.

But the level of affluence in the neighborhood surrounding Whole Foods is well below what you would see in other cities that have undergone urban revival.

Bistros, bike factory, bachelor chic

Sue Mosey is the unofficial mayor of Midtown, the name of the area where Whole Foods opens today. Midtown is also home to two large health systems, Michigan’s third-largest university, and cultural gems like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Michigan Opera Theatre.

Mosey runs Midtown Detroit Inc., and for the last quarter-century she’s worked to lure businesses, improve public spaces, and nudge along real estate deals.

All that effort is paying off. Density is up, the quality of architecture has visibly improved, and you can hardly take a step in this neighborhood without seeing some new coffee shop or boutique.

Mosey says the goal is to make Midtown a retail and food destination. On a drive around the neighborhood, she points out new business after new business – including what will soon be a live music venue.

“It’s formerly a porno theater – well not originally,” Mosey says. “They’ll have restaurants on the ground floor, and then this whole live theater. And then this is 61 units of market-rate housing."

Mosey was instrumental in luring Whole Foods to the neighborhood, but she acknowledges the chain – often referred to as “Whole Paycheck” because of its pricey, often organic fare – didn’t use the same metrics they normally do when deciding to put a store in Detroit.

"What we're trying to do in Detroit stretch the culture, stretch the mission a little bit," Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb told the Milken Institute's Global Conference in April. "Culture is a living, breathing thing. It’s happening all the time. For us, in Detroit, I see thousands of communities across the United States don't have fresh healthy food."

Don’t fear the g-word

Detroit’s greater downtown, which includes Midtown, still lags behind other cities people point to as examples of urban rebirth. According to a report prepared earlier this year, per-capita income $20,216 That’s well below the average for cities like Minneapolis that have seen a revival of their urban cores.

“A lot of cities have already undergone this change,” says Kurt Metzger, a demographer with Data Driven Detroit who worked on the report.

Metzger says the wealth picture is in greater downtown does not jibe with the image of your typical Whole Foods customer. “It’s driven by a lot of elderly people, still a lot of single-room occupancy hotels and some lower-income folks, plus you’ve got college students” who are not exactly high-income earners, says Metzger. “So when you look at the data the income mix is pretty low. It’s one of the lower income neighborhoods in the city.”

But Metzger says anecdotally, things do seem to be on a trajectory that indicates greater wealth could be on the way. For one thing, Metzger says, downtown is starting to attract new white residents. To a demographer, that often signals higher incomes and education. But Metzger knows that for some folks, a sudden influx of new white residents can also mean the g-word.

“There’s this fear of gentrification,” Metzger said. “We’re a long way from there.”

And even if, or when, this part of Detroit catches up with places like downtown Pittsburgh or Minneapolis, some perspective is in order.

“Let’s realize that yeah this is great, but this is 7.2 square miles in a city that’s 139 square miles,” Metzger said.

“Retail ground zero”

But look around Midtown at all the new shops, restaurants, and construction projects and it’s hard not to be optimistic.

One big thing Midtown has going for it is its daytime population. Sue Mosey of Midtown Inc. puts the number of employees and students in the area on any given day at 50,000. Those are 50,000 people who need lunch every day, and maybe some cufflinks.

“I’m Joe Posch and we’re at Hugh, which is a store inspired by classic bachelor pad style in Midtown Detroit,” says the owner of one of many new retail shops in Midtown. Hugh stocks cocktail accessories, personal effects, fancy men’s grooming gear, housewares, and furniture. And Posch says he’s met his sales goals each month he’s been open.

“This is just, for me, retail ground zero for Detroit,” said Posch.

But Posch, who lives in the city, is a realist when it comes to Midtown’s good fortunes rubbing off on the rest of Detroit. But he says he tries to focus on what’s going well.

“There are two ways you can look at Detroit,” he said. “You can look at it in a macro way and get really depressed, or you can look at it in a micro way and get really inspired.”