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Town, developer deny charges that Whole Foods properties are underassessed

In its continuing effort to oppose a grocery store project that has already won town approval, Brighton Grassroots has issued a statement this week charging that the town has undercharged the developers, Daniele Family Cos., by hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes.

At the same time, a group describing itself as business owners in the area, Save Monroe Ave., filed on Friday another in a series of lawsuits to oppose the project. The suit in Monroe County Supreme Court is attempting to get the state Transportation Department to release documents the group requested under the Freedom of Information Law. The two groups have sued the town as well.

The town supervisor and the developer both said the leader of Brighton Grassroots, Brighton resident Howie Jacobson, is wrong in his assertions.

Jacobson said in a statement that when Daniele Family purchased Clover Lanes and Mamasan’s parcels to expand the footprint of their Whole Foods project, they paid a total of $9.5 million, but the town didn’t increase the properties’ assessments to reflect that new market value.

Both properties have been assessed at just one-quarter of their true value, he contends.

“This special treatment results in the Daniele Family paying less than its fair share of the real property tax burden, and forces all other town taxpayers to pay more than their fair share of taxes, effectively subsidizing the Danieles’ project,” Jacobson wrote. He asserts that the Danieles should have paid $900,000 in taxes more than they’ve been assessed over the last four years.

But Town Supervisor William Moehle said Jacobson is just wrong about the way commercial properties are assessed.

“What a developer pays on a speculative basis on a future development isn’t the fair market value,” Moehle said. “Mr. Jacobson isn’t an assessor and, of course, neither am I.”

Moehle also denied an implication of the release: “The suggestion is I somehow directed or caused this special deal.” He said he has no influence in assessments and the town assessor acts independently.

Danny Daniele, president and owner of Daniele Family Cos., responded to Jacobson’s statement by saying, “It may benefit Howie to do some research and learn that unlike residential homes, commercial land is not based on sale prices.”

Moehle said opposition to the Whole Foods project (which includes a 50,000-square-foot grocery store, a drive-through Starbucks and a number of retail businesses, including restaurants) is actually the cause of reduced revenue for the town.

“The project is estimated to generate $400,000 a year when complete. In fact, that’s what we’re losing because of this frivolous series of lawsuits,” Moehle said.

Daniele added, “Our focus is on creating a new development which will more than double those property tax revenues for the community to almost a half million dollars per year.  The sooner we build it, the sooner the community will benefit. …Perhaps Howie should focus on growing the community rather than suing it.”

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While Brighton waits, Whole Foods marches on in Buffalo

When Whole Foods announced, with the Daniele Family Cos., that it was planning to open a grocery store in Brighton, the plan was to open one in the Buffalo area at the same time – 2017.

Whole Foods has been open in the Buffalo areas for more than a year. Photo by Diana Louise Carter.
Whole Foods has been open in the Buffalo area for more than a year. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

Today, the Buffalo store has been open for more than a year, but Rochester’s store is still on the drawing board, stalled by lengthy reviews of the plans caused by opposition and now by a lawsuit. After eight public hearings, the town has granted its permission; demolition and building permits wait for resolution of the suit.

“If not for all the opposition and the lawsuits, Whole Foods would have been open already and Rochester would have had one more choice,” said Danny J. Daniele, co-owner and president of Daniele Family Cos. Much of the opposition focused on potential increases in traffic on an already busy Monroe Avenue.

If the Daniele Family, the project’s developers, wins its day in court, the company will demolish its former Mario’s restaurant and Clover Lanes buildings to make room for a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods grocery store, a drive-through Starbucks and a cluster of about a dozen other businesses. The other businesses include, according to Daniele, high-end boutiques, fresh concept eateries, and pampering services. He says he can’t divulge the tenants’ names until 90 days before they take possession of the properties.

The project’s centerpiece will be the Whole Foods grocery store, an outpost of a highly regarded chain of stores that is represented in Upstate New York only in Buffalo and Albany so far. Though Wegmans Food Markets Inc. staunchly denies it, Danny Daniele insists the locally grown grocery chain is financing opposition to prevent its competitor from getting a foothold in the Rochester market. Wegmans did send a letter to the town with concerns about traffic, safety and other impacts of the proposed development.

Lockers for Amazon packages are discreetly tucked in the grocery cart area. Photo by Diana Louise Carter.
Lockers for Amazon packages are discreetly tucked in the grocery cart area. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

With 21 stores in the Rochester area, Wegmans expects to pass the 100-store mark in 2019 with new stores opening in Brooklyn, Virginia Beach, Va., and Raleigh, N.C. Whole Foods, meanwhile, already has nearly 500 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

What would Whole Foods be like? We visited the store in Buffalo recently to get an idea.

Much like the Brighton site, the Whole Foods is in an upscale suburb of Buffalo, located on the commercial strip of Amherst’s Sheridan Drive and adjacent to a residential neighborhood. The site is actually in the parking lot of what used to be a large mall, which now contains some non-retail tenants.

The 50,000-square-foot grocery store – the same size that’s proposed for Brighton – has three entrances. One leads to a vestibule for shopping carts, parked in rows in front of an Amazon locker for mail-order package pickups. The locker is 12 to 15 feet long and about 6 feet tall, providing a place for people to have packages delivered if they don’t want to risk having something snatched off their stoops.

Whole Food's bulk food section features Dylan's Candy Bar. Photo by DIana Louise Carter.
Whole Food’s bulk food section features Dylan’s Candy Bar. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

After passing by the carts, visitors enter an attractive produce area, with vegetables and fruits neatly laid out in wooden bins. The bulk food section is immediately adjacent, with nationally known hard candies, and grind-your-own peanut butter or almond butter.

Much of what Whole Foods offers will seem familiar to Wegmans regulars – store branded items alongside national brands of groceries, prepared food bars and seating in the store where the foods can be eaten after you check out at the coffee bar. Shoppers can get help at counters for deli, bakery, sushi, and pizza, much like Wegmans. But instead of subs, this store offers ramen bowls.

A second entrance brings shoppers into the store where they have immediate access to the prepared food counters and to Bar 1818, described as offering locally sourced beer on tap, pool, burgers and shakes. A third entrance leads directly into the pub and restaurant. On a recent weekday, Bar 1818 seemed to be attracting neighboring workers on their lunch hour.

Some features that appear to be unique to Whole Foods are skylights in the exposed ceiling. The entire front of the store consists of glass windows, allowing in natural light even on a typically gray day in Western New York. There’s a bocce court at the front of the store, though no one was playing when we visited.

If Whole Foods succeeds in opening a store in Rochester, it’s likely there will be a bowling lane or two instead of a bocce court. Daniele said at Whole Foods’ request, the surfaces of two bowling lanes from Clover Lanes were reserved for the décor of the planned store.

But unless Whole Foods asks for additional permissions from the town, the proposed Rochester Whole Foods would not have any Amazon lockers (Amazon bought Whole Foods since the time the project was proposed in 2015), special features like a bocce court or a bowling lane, or an attached restaurant.

Daniele noted some differences between the planned Brighton store and the store in suburban Buffalo. The Daniele redevelopment plan is much smaller, he said: 84,000 square feet compared to a mall that once contained 250,000 square feet of retail space. And the supermarket is just a portion of the space.

The main entrance at the Buffalo Whole Foods store. Photo by Diana Louise Carter.
The main entrance at the Buffalo Whole Foods store. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

“To give some perspective, the Wegmans stores are usually over 125,000 square feet, meaning you could fit two full-size Whole Foods stores inside the Pittsford Wegmans and still have room left over to squeeze a Cheesecake Factory in there,” he said.

Indeed the business models are different, with Whole Foods operating stores less than half the size of the typical Wegmans supermarket. Both chains step out of the typical grocery store model to carry clothing and equipment for practicing yoga, but Wegmans by and large has more offerings across the board and appeals to a broader range of price points.

Daniele has no timeline for the Brighton project to move forward. He said injunctions related to opposition have prevented the company from even repairing the buildings that  have been closed now for two years.

“If the lawsuit disappears, we would be able to start demolition next week and construction thereafter,” Daniele said. Given the go-ahead, the project could be built in 10 to 14 months he said.

Town Supervisor William Moehle said the town loses out on several fronts as the waiting continues, from the walking trail that the developers would build as part of the incentive zoning package for the project, to the tax dollars – some $400,000 annually – created by the commerce, to new shopping available even on foot.

“I understand that people want to have the legal issues resolved before they make the investment. What that means is this enhancement to our tax base and the safety improvements and the assets of the trail are also delayed,” Moehle said.

The  lengthy delay will not deter the Daniele Family Cos. from the project, Daniele said.

“Our intent is to continue forward with what we believe is a new and fresh development that would breathe some new life into this corridor,” he said.

[email protected]/(585) 363-7275