Maintaining a small neighborhood business in a city full of big-name corporations is no easy task, said Mayor Darwin Hindman, but he thinks it is key to developing a sense of community in residential areas.
“One of the arguments I heard against (setting aside land for commercial development), as expressed by one of my council people, is under modern merchandising, it’s impossible to run a neighborhood business,” Hindman said.
That councilman, Brian Ash of the Sixth Ward, said the success of neighborhood businesses depends on the products they offer and the type of overhead they have.
“It’s my assertion that . . . operating expenses have risen so high in the past few decades that there is now a fairly high minimum amount of sales necessary to cover all of your expenses, not to mention all the costs of generating those sales, (for instance) your supplies and your payroll,” he said.
Karl Skala, vice chairman of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission, said it’s difficult but not impossible to run a successful neighborhood business.
“That difficulty can be diminished if the choice of uses and the scale of the development is appropriate for the neighborhood: small eateries, coffee shops, boutiques, book shops,” Skala said.
He called Cherry Hill a prime example of a successful commercial and residential neighborhood.
“Cherry Hill is an upscale, mixed-use (commercial and residential) community that supports many small shops . . . and includes other amenities that fall under the smart-growth rubric known as ‘new urbanism’,” he said. “Its underlying zoning is C-P (planned commercial). . . . This neighborhood does not fear well-planned commercial development because the wishes of its residents were considered part of the plan.”
Hindman said people have been setting up neighborhood businesses for years. Stores used to be on the ground floor, and the owners lived on the second floor.
“That was a tradition for many years,” he said. “Plenty of people in the community would jump at the chance to provide such a business. They would be served, and the community would be served.”
The Lee Street Deli at 603 Lee St. in East Campus has thrived since 1927. Manager Chad Morrow said there are pros and cons to running a neighborhood business.
“When you’re in a neighborhood business with zoning laws, you’re on your own with not much competition,” Morrow said. “But since you’re surrounded by houses, people don’t exactly look for you either.”
Hindman said neighborhood businesses would have a better chance of surviving if they were at the edge of the neighborhoods, so all could benefit.
Neighborhood associations have traditionally opposed commercial development, listing crime and increased danger for children as major reasons. Hindman argues that crime would drop if neighborhoods developed a better interconnectivity and walkability.
“The more people you get walking around, there would be less crime,” Hindman said. “People don’t want to commit crimes in front of other people.”
Ash said that “times have changed, and not always for the better.”
“Unfortunately, many parents no longer feel safe letting their children travel on foot or by bike very far out of their eyesight,” he said. “This isn’t so much a traffic issue, as it is a fear of child predators. . . . It’s just a problem that I, unfortunately, don’t see us solving, no matter how much we try to design a walkable community and start incorporating neighborhood commercial.
“I actually hope that I’m wrong and someone has a creative idea on how we could tackle these difficult issues because I do agree that it would be a good thing in the long run if these neighborhood businesses could survive.”