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Divisions linger over Whole Foods Center

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Whole Foods Center in Brighton looks like it's progressing. The project's developer has demolished the former Mario's restaurant building at the nascent plaza's Monroe Avenue site, and crews have started dismantling the former Clover Lanes.

But the development's future depends heavily on the outcome of nine lawsuits filed against Brighton's town government after officials approved the project last year. One of those lawsuits was filed by the Clover / Allen's Creek Neighborhood Association, which represents homeowners adjacent to Whole Foods Center site. The rest were filed by either Save Monroe Avenue, a coalition of largely unidentified businesses, or Brighton Grassroots, a residents' group.

The lawsuits have already delayed the project, Danny Daniele, president of the Daniele Family Companies, said in an e-mail. The company had hoped to have the buildings demolished and the land cleaned up by the end of February, he said, but if the town prevails in the lawsuits, construction could start before the summer.

"It's really sad how much our community is losing out" because of a limited number of people suing the town to keep the project from moving forward, Daniele said.

Whole Foods Center, as approved by the town, will be an 83,700-square-foot plaza anchored by a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods grocery store. The only other confirmed tenant is a Starbucks, although several other retailers – most new to the Rochester area – have approached the developers about space in the plaza, Daniele said.

The project was controversial from the moment the Daniele family announced it in March 2015. Some Brighton residents, particularly those living close to the site, were immediately concerned that replacing Mario's and the bowling alley with a Whole Foods and other retail would worsen already problematic traffic on and around that part of Monroe Avenue.

The approved project includes two new traffic signals and plans to consolidate or otherwise reconfigure the entrances for the businesses on the other side of Monroe. That work is meant to help traffic move more smoothly and safely through the corridor.

Brighton officials approved the project through an incentive zoning process, a common approach where local governments allow developers to deviate from some requirements – typically building size, site density, and parking – in exchange for some extra, tangible community benefits.

Brighton officials are counting the traffic signals and driveway modification plans among those benefits, since the Daniele Family Companies will be paying for them. The developer has also committed to improving the Auburn Trail from the Pittsford town line to Highland Avenue.

"That Auburn Trail is something we've wanted to do for 20 years, and this will help us to do it without spending a nickel," Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle says. "And that's a great investment for the community."

Between Clover Street and Allens Creek Road, the trail runs on privately owned land, but an easement held by the town provides for public use of it. The section between Allens Creek Road and Highland Avenue is owned by Rochester Gas and Electric and currently has no public access easement.

The town also estimates that the project will generate $400,000 in tax revenue annually for Brighton, the Brighton school district, and Monroe County, Moehle says.

Size has been at the heart of the Whole Foods plaza conflict from the start. That's reflected in the public relations campaigns that Save Monroe Avenue and Brighton Grassroots are currently waging. Both groups refer to the project as "supersized" and claimed that developers got a "special deal" for it.

Town officials and the Danieles have responded by questioning who makes up and funds the groups, and by implying or stating directly that they think other companies – Wegmans in particular – are putting up money for ads and lawsuits.

The lawsuits, which challenge various aspects of the town's review process and approvals, also make an issue of Whole Foods Center's potential size. For example, Brighton Grassroots argues in one of its lawsuits that the town's approval of the project should be reversed because Brighton officials didn't properly account for the traffic it will generate. A Monroe County Supreme Court judge dismissed two of Brighton Grassroots' lawsuits, but the organization has appealed and expects decisions on both cases soon.

The Clover / Allens Creek Neighborhood Association argued in its lawsuit that the town inappropriately gave the developer public property by allowing it to alter the Auburn Trail. The neighborhood group figures that if it can block the developer from using the trail land, it can force the developer to downsize the project. Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Dan Doyle ruled against the association; the group appealed and expects a decision soon.

"We have no issue with Whole Foods being built there, but it's the fact that they're building a massive amount of retail, restaurant space, in addition to a 50,000-square-foot grocery store," says Howie Jacobson, Brighton Grassroots' leader. "It's totally inappropriate for the size of that property."

Jacobson and other critics say the town should have made the Daniele Family Companies pursue the project using existing zoning and standard approvals processes, which would have resulted in a smaller development.

Moehle says Whole Foods Center is a good project and is consistent with smart-growth approaches as well as the town's Comprehensive Plan. He pushes back on the idea that it might have been smaller, or better, without the incentive zoning process.

The Daniele Family Companies would have needed zoning variances and conditional-use permits from the town, Moehle says, but it could have sought those things for an even larger project. Incentive zoning, on the other hand, gave the town some leverage over the developer.

As a result, Moehle says, the Daniele firm signed an agreement with project neighbors promising not to allow access to the plaza from Clover Street or Allen's Creek Road; it agreed to pay for two new traffic lights on Monroe Avenue and to make access improvements for businesses across the street from the plaza; and it promised to improve the Auburn Trail and then provide a recreational easement to the town.

"We would not have gotten the amenities that the developer will be paying for out of his own pocket had we not gone through the incentive zoning process," Moehle says.

Critics, of course, believe the development firm isn't providing enough benefits to the town and that it should contribute more. The project has generated years' worth of tit for tat, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon.