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Mobtown Beat

Life on a Different Avenue

Local Business Owner Proposes a No-Chain-Store Rule For Hampden’s Main Retail Artery

Sam Holden
INDIE ROCKS: Atomic Books co-owner Benn Ray is part of a group called Independent Hampden, which is trying to get the city to prohibit national chain stores from opening on the Avenue.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 8/31/2005

When Benn Ray and Rachel Whang first opened Atomic Books in Hampden in 2001, West 36th Street (better known as “the Avenue”) was a very different place than it is today.

“When we opened, [the street] had a lot of vacant storefronts,” says Ray, an occasional contributor to City Paper. “We actually had to put in very little effort finding a space. Even though the street had Common Ground, Golden West Café, Oh Said Rose, Café Hon, Suzi’s Soba, there was still a blight element.”

Now the Avenue is considered hot retail property—it boasts an antiques mall, trendy bars, two record shops, a New Age bookstore, and a tea garden, among other businesses. The neighborhood, which has long been associated with the city’s kitschy Hon culture, has become an “it” neighborhood for hipsters, young professionals, and developers alike. So far, as the area has changed, it has managed to cling to its independent, markedly Baltimore-centric spirit. The storefronts, for the most part, are populated by local entrepreneurial endeavors as opposed to national chain stores that are the hallmark of many successful urban neighborhoods—there are no Starbucks Coffees, no Barnes and Noble Booksellers, no Panera Breads. And some of the street’s merchants, including Ray and Whang, are trying to ensure that it stays that way.

Ray has been researching programs in other cities that have used zoning laws and legislation to restrict or ban large chains from operating in vital independent business areas. Specifically, he looked closely at a law passed in San Francisco that protects the neighborhoods of North Beach and Hayes Valley by requiring that any company owning 11 or more stores be approved by special permit to operate on their main retail avenues. The idea, supporters say, is that neighborhoods—not developers—get to decide whether they want to allow a particular chain to open on their retail corridors. Some think it’s time Baltimore considers passing a similar self-determining ordinance.

On Aug. 12, Ray sent an e-mail to the subscribers of his e-zine the Mobtown Shank asking them to support an effort he’s calling Independent Hampden. He noted in the e-mail that as the Avenue grows in popularity, so do the rumors that national chain stores have expressed interest in the area, most notably in the Rotunda shopping mall, which was recently sold to New Jersey-based development firm Hekemian and Co. There have been rumors at different points that Home Depot, Outback Steakhouse, and the Ann Taylor clothing chain have expressed interest in setting up shop in the Rotunda. (Christopher Bell, senior vice president of Hekemian and Co., says he is not familiar with the Independent Hampden effort, and that the company has not spoken to any retailers about moving to the Rotunda yet.)

In addition, Ray says that Quiznos Sub, a national chain of sandwich stores, approached Preller Properties, which owns several storefronts on the street, about opening up shop on the Avenue. Bob Geis, co-owner of Preller Properties, confirmed that Quiznos Sub has approached his company about opening on the Avenue, but so far Preller is just “making a list” of interested parties. He says that Preller Properties is “thinking about” the Independent Hampden concept, but hasn’t decided to take a stance on it yet, one way or the other.

The notion of sharing the Avenue with national chains and big-box businesses that may be working with developers like Hekemian and Preller, does not make Ray (or some other small businesspeople in Hampden) particularly happy.

“You know, if you want to go to Starbucks, go to the county, go to the mall,” says Sandy Piper, owner of the Hampden Bargain Center (better known as Sandy’s), which will be closing at the end of the year because Piper says her building was bought by Preller Properties and she will not be able to afford the $3,000-a-month rent the company quoted her to stay. “The problem with the Avenue right now is these people are coming in and buying these stores up, and that’s what they are trying to do is franchise them and get these stores in there that are willing to pay $3,000 or $4,000 a month. . . . The little mom-and-pop shops that used to be here are dying. The big guys are coming in, buying the stores up, and they are outrageously rich.”

“A new coalition of residents and merchants in Hampden, who want to fight to keep out-of-state chain stores off the Avenue (36th Street between Falls Road and Keswick) are asking for your help to keep Hampden indy,” Ray wrote in his Aug. 12 e-mail. “You are invited to join Independent Hampden. All you need to do is e-mail Hampden’s two City Council representatives and ask them to sponsor legislation that will ban any new national chain stores and restaurants from opening on 36th Street between Falls Road and Keswick.”

The e-mail sparked a quick response among Shank readers and Hampden-philes—Ray says he now has a “bunch” of volunteers who are writing letters and spreading the word about the effort. He says he corresponded with City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th), and “from what I understand, she received quite a few e-mails—more than I expected.”

Likewise, City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway (D-7th) says she was flooded with e-mails about the proposal from supportive city residents, though many of them were not from the Hampden area.

“It started last Friday [Aug 12]—I got a whole lot on Friday,” Conaway laughs. “And on Saturday, too, but now it’s kind of tapering off a bit. But e-mails are funny things. Anyone can send e-mails, and just because someone sends an e-mail in support of this, it doesn’t mean they are part of the [Hampden] business community or the residential community. So you can’t just put everything on the e-mails. We will need to make sure that this is something representative of what the residents and business owners want.”

Clarke could not be reached for comment on this story, but she did send Ray a letter acknowledging Independent Hampden and telling him she would look into the possibility of making Hampden a chain-free zone.

“I am asking City Council President Sheila Dixon to request an opinion from City Solicitor Ralph Tyler on the legality of banning national chain operations from the Hampden business area,” she wrote. “If legal, this restriction could be accomplished through an amendment to the [Hampden] urban-renewal plan. Meanwhile, if legal, we would want consensus from the organizations representing the area, who I have notified of this request. I certainly understand the concern to preserve the character of the neighborhood.”

The Independent Hampden effort seems to have so far been well-received by Hampden business interests—at least in principle. For example, Tom McGilloway, president of Hampden Village Main Street, a volunteer-based economic-development and preservation group, says he personally would like Hampden to remain “unique and funky” and that Independent Hampden is an “intriguing concept.” However, Hampden Village Main Street “won’t take a position” on it right now because the organization needs to find out what will work best for the community.

“We’ve been assisting, by providing them with information,” McGilloway says. “We’ll be a resource to it, but we won’t take a position. Our recommendation would be to think through something like this thoroughly before launching into it.”

“In theory, it’s a good thing for exploration, but it has to go through the visioning process,” says Allen Hicks, president of the Hampden Community Council, who points out that some residents of the neighborhood would actually like to see chain-store conveniences brought to the area. “Not all businesses speak with the same voice, and not all residents do. It’s interesting because we don’t necessarily want a big-box store in the Rotunda, but the senior citizens, they wanted a Wal-Mart. Where can you go in Hampden to get thread? To get socks? The neighborhood is changing for the people coming in, but not for the people who have been living here. . . . I think we need stores that serve the neighborhood, not just tourists.”

But Ray points out that that’s exactly the problem with big-box businesses and out-of-state chain stores—historically, he says, they have not well-served the communities they descend upon. He points to studies that show that for every chain business that opens in a city, only 15 cents per dollar stays in that state, whereas 45 cents of every dollar stays in-state when a local business opens in a city. He notes that local business owners who are keenly familiar with the neighborhoods they operate in tend to sponsor important projects and charities that keep those communities vital. He contends that the presence of nonlocal chain business in urban neighborhoods can drive up rents and force smaller competitors out of business, making ghost towns out of formerly thriving retail areas.

Already, several Hampden businesses are feeling the crunch as landlords, noting the real-estate boom in the area, are increasing rents and putting prime Avenue properties up for sale. Piper hopes she will be able to find a new site in Hampden for Sandy’s, but so far, she says, it’s been difficult to find an affordable space for the store. Mamie’s Café, known for its grandmotherly pink storefront facade and home-cooked specials, will likely be leaving its present location on the Avenue, as well. According to attorney William Rudow, who has represented Mamie’s for nearly 10 years, the business is “negotiating with commercial entities” to find a new spot to open. All the locations the restaurant has looked at are in Hampden, he says, but “are all off the Avenue.” And the building that has housed ceramics, metalwork, and jewelry shop Mud and Metal for the past 10 years is up for sale. The owner of the property is asking $325,000 for the three-story, 1,280-square-foot rowhouse, and Mud and Metal owner Carol Breining is bracing herself, in case she should have to move her shop when the building sells. After all, in the current frenzied real-estate market, rents could be increased or tenants with deeper pockets could be sought for the space.

“I’m not sure who’s going to buy it, and it puts me in a very big state of flux as a business owner,” she says. But one of the benefits of being in a community of other small businesses is that merchants tend to look out for one another, and Breining says she’s had “wonderful” offers of support from her neighbors should she be forced to relocate. Breining says when she first moved to the Avenue, she knew it had the potential to be a strong local-retail community, but she never would have expected it to attract the kind of interest it has recently.

“I could not imagine, at that point, big corporations being interested in coming to Hampden,” she says. “We’ve come a long way.”

And though she says she hopes the future will bring more independent business to the Avenue, she does not say she would unequivocally support an outright ban on chain stores in the neighborhood.

“I think it would be nice to fill the space with wonderful unique stores and not something that you find anywhere else around the country,” she says. “But there are wonderful areas, like the Rotunda, where corporations could be very happy.”

On Sept. 26, the Hampden Community Council will hold its next public meeting, Hicks says. He hopes that Independent Hampden can be discussed openly at that time, as he says the organization is currently working on the neighborhood’s urban-renewal plan.

“There’s all kinds of things happening in the community, and the community feels it should be determining its future, not developers,” Hicks says. “As such, I think this would be an excellent time to bring it up, while we are in the visioning process. . . . We really have to look at it, discuss it. The devil is in the details.”

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