Helen Matthews’ is an articulate gem that sparkles in many ways. I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end. She makes her points with evidence and elegance. I hope we’ll get to read a lot more of what she writes in the future, but I disagree with her for two reasons: justice and confidence.
As far as we know, nothing about this transaction was illegal. In this case, both Whole Foods and Knapp Foods have acted according to the laws we have long followed, the same laws that work on our behalf in different circumstances. As owners of private property, (even cars and iPods and books) we are all free to buy and sell what we own as long as we follow the rules. The two parties have done that. There is a contract. It is legal.
Preventing this deal would come perilously close to a public taking of private property to benefit the goals of one segment of the population. I think that’s community organized theft.
How many people actually want to keep Whole Foods out? It would set a dangerous precedent to formally ask that question. Are we going to rule by plebiscite, or worse yet, protest march, on the workings of every property contract in JP?
I don't know how a community can nullify a contract except perhaps by condemning the property and then claiming it for a higher community purpose, eminent domain. The Knapps would be big losers, although the moralists would argue that their loss is justly deserved for their poor stewardship of the past and of course the public would have to pay them for their property at market rate, which this flap demonstrates is pretty high. So maybe they wouldn't lose as much as the moralists might like. Whole Foods would be out the cost of the transaction so far, but they would still be able to find someplace else to locate a JP store, maybe adjacent to Stop & Shop in the new development. That's a scenario a novelist might write.
A huge property in Connecticut was taken by condemnation. In that case the mall developer and big business won the day, not a grass roots community group, but it might be the precedent that Whose Foods needs. I'd hate to see this case drag out in the courts like that one. The CT case went to the US Supreme Court. Oh and guess what, the driving force there, Pfizer, the international drug giant, later pulled out of the deal because of the damage being done to its community image. Land was taken, homes were bulldozed, but demonstrating people forced the outcome in the marketplace. Pfizer didn't want to continue getting metaphorically bloodied. The commercial development had already gone through, though and the property had been transferred from private property owners to the public for the purpose of commercial development. Barring a land taking, one can easily imagine a similar bludgeoning in Hyde Square resulting in a different national company at the other end of a new Knapp lease if Whole Foods walks away. That would be the proverbial devil we don't know.
Now, if you back up a little and ask the question "Was Knapp holding up its end of the bargain when it was running a grocery store?" I think the answer might be no, but frankly, no one took them to task for it while they were open, and if there was anything there, unless it was an illegal act, it's too late to do anything about it now. The system does not have a way to exact punishment from a bad actor who has done nothing illegal other than by allowing them to suffer in the marketplace. In this case, the bad performer is no longer in the marketplace, not in JP or Newton, anyway. Meanwhile, Whole Foods, their replacement, is by reputation and many other metrics, a great performer, not a bad one, an upright citizen by the laws of the land.
Furthermore, the opposition would keep out Whole Foods on the basis, not of its own performance, but on the way other communities changed after other Whole Foods entered into other marketplaces. In other words, protestors would stop Whole Foods from coming based on the way that other people in other communities have behaved, not the way that Whole Foods behaves...again, is that possibly legal? Would anyone want it to be legal?
I love JP. I love its unique ways and its moral and mental strength, its creativity, its community-first attitude and of course, its diversity. I even love its righteous voice. Like Helen, I also think that Whole Foods is not the best we can do; it is big business with its own imperatives that won’t always jive with JP's. But I think that the best we can do looks a lot more like Whole Foods than it did Knapp Foods. I think that opposition to Whole Foods puts opposition first and community second. It makes a narrow sector of community the arbiters of morality. It undermines the legal system that protects us all in transactions of private property. We, you, me, the Knapps, Whole Foods, Whose Foods are all equals under the eyes of the law. I urge people to consider that by preventing Whole Foods from benefiting from its lease with Knapp, they are inserting themselves into a private transaction, taking the law into their own hands, like vigilantes. That doesn't inspire confidence in future transactions. As we have seen first hand in the most recent economic crisis, confidence is essential to a healthy economy. Lack of it could sow the seeds that result in the opposite of gentrification...deterioration. No one wants that.
Is anyone arguing that there is moral or legal authority to try to keep things from changing? If so, does anyone want the Knapps to re-open?
I think that the most effective tool the opposition has is to oppose Whole Foods by not shopping there and convincing the community at large that shopping there runs counter to their best interest. That would be a Herculean task that even the opponents of I-95 would have a hard time accomplishing, but if the case is well made and the opposition can last, JP could make it happen, legally, post Whole Foods’ entry.
[Editor's note: The writer is also a contributor to JP Patch, where he has, as a reporter, controversy. This letter reflects his opinion.]