We Also Need To Help Urban Businesses

I recently finished Jeremiah Moss’ Vanishing New York. One very important point is how local businesses, which are often not high-end, are critical to maintaining the character of local neighborhoods, and to keeping them affordable. Unfortunately, due to high and rising rents, these small businesses aren’t able to remain in their locations (it doesn’t help that banks would prefer to loan to national chains rather than small businesses, which are seen as credit risks). As some asshole with a blog put it:

The exceptions to this phenomenon are those businesses where the business owns the building (e.g., Ben’s Chili Dogs). But if a business is renting, it’s too hard with low margins to survive. While D.C., and other cities, do have some local store and restaurant initiatives, if cities can’t figure out how to get business rents under control, we’re going to end up with a lot of overpriced stores and restaurants–which is another reason why lower-middle and middle class people are concerned about gentrification.

Which brings us to this very interesting comment about a new mixed-use apartment building in Shaw (D.C.) that can’t seem to keep ground floor businesses (boldface mine):

A lot of these newer developments struggle with the size problem, and have for years. A row house is typically 900-1,000 SF. Maybe 1,500 for a wider unit. But in a big block building like Shay, there’s just no way to carve up the first floor into units that small. Even a 2,000sf space is going to be very skinny because the footprint is so deep. The retailer will be paying for a lot of square footage and get almost no street presence in exchange.

It’s why you usually find these cute boutique shops in places like H Street or Capitol Hill, where the building stock is older and smaller.

It may seem like a minor issue in urban planning, but I think it’s something people need to be aware of when their community is considering developments like this. Bigger buildings will inevitably mean chain stores. The best you can hope for in ‘local’ is an established business like Busboys & Poets or Politics & Prose who already have a well-known brand.

If we want to keep neighborhoods affordable and interesting, then cities need to start figuring out how to lower rents for local businesses.

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