Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Best Chains on Main contest

When I first got involved in "Main Street"-type commercial district revitalization work, I was pretty much adamantly against "chain stores." Over time, I've come to a more nuanced position:

1. Distinguishing between regional and national chains;

2. Distinguishing between straight up cookie-cutter franchises (e.g., "Subway") vs. retail co-ops like Ace Hardware or True Value Hardware that allow for some individuality;

3. Recognizing that selectively adding some chain stores, depending on the market positioning for the commercial district, can actually strengthen the commercial district in terms of its specific niches and overall position in a metropolitan area vis-a-vis other commercial districts;

4. Plus, the presence of chains, rightly or wrongly, is seen as an indicator of quality by typical customers and prospects.

That being said I don't think it's all roses and cream. See the past blog entries "Why the future of urban retail isn't chains" and "Store siting decisions." But it can be true that "regional" chains are more likely to be willing to locate stores in traditional commercial districts, in traditional commercial buildings, compared to national chains. This certainly was true of the old People's Drug Store chain, founded in DC, which got up to about 800 stores, before it was consumed by and merged into CVS.

Mostly, national chain retailers follow neighborhood and commercial district improvements, they don't enter early and help further improvement when it matters most. A couple exceptions are Design Within Reach, which because of their design brand promise, American Apparel (a company which has other very serious problems) which as part of their edginess, and Urban Outfitters, will open stores in areas that haven't fully revitalized. Plus, Urban Outfitters owns Anthropologie, an upscale women's apparel store (primarily, they also sell funky housewares), which opens stores in traditional commercial districts, but they have to have extremely high powered demographics.

I would also vote for Barnes & Noble's college textbook company (it's technically separate from the standard retail chain), which increasingly is locating their college bookstores in commercial districts adjacent to the college, such as in Williamsburg, Virginia (College of William and Mary), or on St. Paul Avenue in Charles Village (as part of a dormitory/mixed use building), Baltimore (Johns Hopkins University), or as part of an apartment complex adjacent to the University of Baltimore on Oliver Street--this location is about a block from light rail and three blocks from Penn Station.

Still, the Commercial District Advisor blog reports the results of a "best chain on Main Street" contest, which seems to be focused on the East Coast, in the entry "AND THE WINNERS OF THE BEST CHAIN ON MAIN ARE....":

- Villa, an urban-inspired apparel and footwear retailer with 26 locations throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region.
- Pamela's P&G Diner (Strip District, Pittsburgh)
- The Fresh Grocer, Philadelphia (they keep looking at but walking away from locations in DC)
- Mugshots Coffee House and Café, a coffee shop with 3 locations in Philadelphia, PA,
- Gothic Cabinet Craft, a furniture retailer with 33 locations in and around New York City.

Were I to throw out some suggestions of companies active in the DC region, they would include:

- Care Pharmacy (a co-op/franchise, based in Alexandria I think)
- Real Cool Hardware Stores, an Ace affiliate, with stores in DC, Takoma Park, and Baltimore
- Yes! Grocery, a natural foods store with multiple locations in DC, none in the suburbs
- MOM Grocery (My Organic Grocery) although they seem to fear center city locations (I think they used to have one years ago)
- Plan 9 Music (Richmond, Charlottesville--they used to have more stores)
- Marvelous Markets ? (they used to be better a couple different ownerships ago)
- Ray's the Steaks and other joints (Michael Landrum), especially their opening a restaurant in Ward 7
- Sound Garden (music) with stores in Baltimore and Syracuse, NY
- Clyde's Restaurants

Plus, in terms of businesses that aren't chain, but have created economies of scale and systems of practice for opening new businesses successfully, I would nominate DC night time establishment impresario Joe Englert. But other restaurant companies are doing this too--I can think of at least 5-10, although Joe is sticking to funkier concepts in tougher places.

Interestingly, the DC-Baltimore region has lost a bunch of regional chains over the years:

- department store chains like Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckels
- apparel chains like Britches of Georgetowne and Raleighs
- bookstore chains like Olsson's and Trovers
- office supply store companies Ginns and Jacobs-Gardner
- Giffords Ice Cream
- High's convenience stores (at least in DC)
- Kemp Mill Music is down to one store
- People's Drug Stores

Then there are companies that have only one location but clearly could open more stores if they were up to it:

- Red Tree in Hampden, Baltimore -- they are opening a store in Takoma DC, called Trohv, but I don't understand why they don't call it Red Tree

- Need Supply Company (apparel), Carytown, Richmond

That being said, I don't find DC to be that vibrant of a market for independent retail, not compared to say stores in places like Carytown, Richmond, or Ballard, Seattle or even Downtown Frederick or Hampden Village in Baltimore.

It's said that the national jewelry store chain, Kay Jewelers, started in DC. So did the Marriott Company, as a hot dog stand. Of course, the once powerhouse Giant Supermarket started in the city also. (In my opinion they are on the decline, even though I like their pricing comparatively speaking.)

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