ENCINITAS — The Pacific Station Whole Foods, which debuted five-and-a-half years ago to a large crowds and a downtown eager for a standalone market, will shut down, the Texas-based chain announced Wednesday.
The 23,000-square-foot market, which was the centerpiece of the mixed-used development, will close its doors for good Feb. 22.
“As we work to position Whole Foods Market for long-term success, we have carefully evaluated our portfolio of stores to align with a more thoughtful growth strategy,” said Betsy Harden, a spokeswoman for the natural grocery chain. “As a result, we have decided to close the Encinitas store. This was not a decision that was made lightly and we are working closely with all affected team members to find alternative positions at nearby stores where possible.”
Encinitas business and civic officials reacted with shock when told of the news of the closure.
“We’re surprised and disappointed to see Whole Foods go,” said Thora Guthrie, executive director of Encinitas 101 Main Street Association, the business advocacy group in the city’s downtown.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear said she was sad to see the business go, but expressed hope that the space would not be vacant for long.
The Encinitas location is one of nine nationwide that will be closing as part of the corporate realignment that it announced during its quarterly earnings report.
The market, known for its large selection of organic products and ready-to-eat meals, debuted in June 2011, six months after Pacific Station opened and four years after the grocery chain announced its intent to anchor the somewhat controversial development in 2007.
Whole Foods is located on the ground floor of the three-story development, which includes several retail shops, business offices and 47 residential units on the floors above and on the ground level.
Hundreds of people attended the daylong pre-opening ceremony in late June of that year, which included a block party and tours of the store.
In recent years, however, the market has seen increased competition from a renovated Seaside Market in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, and most recently with the opening of Lazy Acres Natural Market, which is less than a mile away from Whole Foods.
Corporate officials would not comment as to whether either of those markets’ performances had played a role in the decision to pull out of the Pacific Station location.
The closure also comes at a time when critics of mixed-use developments in Encinitas have openly questioned whether the concept should be included in future housing plans.
Residential-and-commercial projects have been the rage over the past decade throughout San Diego and across the country, as they have been seen as an environmentally friendly form of development.
Municipalities have tried to create neighborhoods where residents could recreate and shop within walking distance of their homes, reducing reliance on vehicles. In some cities, such as San Marcos and Vista and others cities along the Sprinter corridor, such developments have been near public transportation hubs to promote the use of public transit over vehicles.
Mixed-use developments have also been closely tied to the development of affordable housing.
But while the housing has been a success, in many locations, the commercial storefronts have stood vacant. In Vista, city officials recently voted to demolish a row of commercial storefronts in the Breeze Hill development and build more homes in its place.
In Encinitas, however, Pacific Station had been hailed as a mixed-use success story. But some residents — especially the No on Measure T contingent — had argued that the commercial and residential concepts were incompatible.
Blakespear, when asked whether she believed the loss of Whole Foods would fuel the argument, said no.
“I feel that businesses turn over, and if you look around town, there are a lot of businesses that are interested in Encinitas,” Blakespear said. “I see this as a decision based on a corporate chain and there will be another market that goes in there.”
She also said that she doesn’t believe the closure in any way speaks to the viability of downtown’s commercial core.
“I am sad to see them go, but downtown stands on its own,” Blakespear said. “We have vibrant businesses and there are always inquiries about coming into downtown.”
Speaking further about the closure, Guthrie said that she heard from local residents that the prices might have also deterred shoppers.
“While we are disappointed to see it go, if people couldn’t afford to shop there, then perhaps a different market will have more success,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie also said that parking was an issue at the location. The Whole Foods has an underground parking garage, but the signs aren’t immediately visible to passing motorists.
“Once you see it, you’ve passed it, and it isn’t easy to get back to it,” said Guthrie, who said that the association is looking at signage issues throughout the corridor.
At least one developer said they believed the city’s right-to-vote initiative, Proposition A, led to the market’s demise, as it limited other mixed-use developments to be built that would have given the market the population it needed to sustain itself.
“The reason Whole Foods failed is that Proposition A killed additional mixed-use development downtown that would have brought the population density that is needed to sustain a downtown market,” said David Meyer, a development consultant whose company, DCM Properties, is currently suing the city over Prop. A and the city’s lack of a housing element. “This is not the failure of the promise of mixed-use development or the Whole Foods brand. It is simply that there are not enough people living downtown to sustain a high-end food market.”
None of this mattered to Michael Deluca, a Carlsbad resident who works in Encinitas and eats lunch regularly at the market. He expressed the same shock as Blakespear when he learned about the closure.
“It is a healthy option for lunch, it’s close to home, it’s quick, in the afternoon it’s nice and mellow, and I feel great after having a lunch from Whole Foods,” Deluca said. “It’s a unique experience compared to going to Vons or Stater Bros. or Ralph’s. It’s a shock.”
This story has been updated since its original posting.