Increase in food outlets opposed Influx of restaurants is a worry to some downtown merchants

July 28, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

This isn't a city -- it's a food court.

That's the complaint of some Annapolis merchants who think the historic downtown is becoming too snack happy. As a new wave of burger, hot dog and ice cream shops opens where higher-priced stores used to be, these merchants are panicking.

"I don't want to see this place become nothing more than a food park," said Larry Vincent, who owns Laurence Clothing on Main Street. "People are no longer going to think of us as a shopping destination."

Recently, the chain boutique Laura Ashley was replaced by a Ben and Jerry's, and the Sports Deli clothing store has become )) two restaurants -- a Starbucks and Einstein's Bagels. A one-time art shop, Pendragon Gallery, is expected to be made into a McDonald's.

Meanwhile, as diners take their treats to the sidewalk cafes legalized last year, they can spot even more places to eat.

A Ritzy's fast-food restaurant is coming to where the city tried, but failed, to ban a Burger King. The 49 West Coffee House opened on West Street less than a year ago, and next door, Ciao, a gourmet food shop, is expanding into a sit-down restaurant.

Normally, such business activity would be nothing but good news, and cities are loath to chase away popular restaurants. But some people worry the city streets are whipped into too much of a feeding frenzy.

"If there's a lot of food, then there's only one reason to come downtown, and that's to eat," said Ann Widener, president of the Maryland Avenue-State Circle Business Association and operator of an interior design shop. "If that's the perception, then it will keep people away."

Entrepreneurs argue that new restaurants are a much better alternative to the empty storefronts that constantly appear in the downtown shopping district, where annual rent can run between $9,000 and $200,000.

Restaurants typically attract residents and tourists -- a mix that some other downtown businesses have failed to achieve -- and are wealthy enough to invest in historic district real estate and thrive there.

"This is going to be a great success," said Steve Ergie, a manager at Einstein's Bagels, a subsidiary of Boston Chicken that moved into a pricey spot by City Dock this month. "People already really like the idea."

Annapolis Economic Development Director Susan Zellers said her office has started wooing national niche retailers -- none of them food outlets -- but doesn't think the city is in a position to turn down potential business based on the type of merchandise it sells.

"If we were completely booked up and there was a waiting line to get a store space and a majority of it was food, then at that point the municipality might get involved" in discouraging food outlets, she said. But now, she says, she just encourages a mix.

But more and more, preservation groups are trying to keep cheaper eats out of their cities. In the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, residents are at war over a proposed pizza parlor moving to where a toy store stood.

"Fights like this pose a fundamental question to historic districts," said George E. Thomas, an architecture expert who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. "And that is: What are they and who do they want to serve, and do they serve a larger community beyond the immediate residential neighborhood that's there?"

Some groups are leasing abandoned buildings instead of letting the first buyer come and get it -- holding out until a highbrow retailer makes an offer, said Kennedy Smith, director of the Main Street Center at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"A zillion places have done this," she said. "If a building becomes vacant, and the community wants a certain business there, they'll keep the building off the market until they find the right tenant."

Other cities are hiring business directors who play the same role a mall manager would in a shopping center -- dictating the placement and selection of shops and advising storekeepers to keep later hours.

"I'd love to see that happen in Annapolis -- I'd love to help it happen," said Zellers.

She said she hasn't heard an outcry from local business leaders to create such a position, and her one-person office is too swamped with day-to-day business to perform the service unassisted.

Some local business owners say it's premature to declare Annapolis the victim of a food invasion. But they caution that the city and its retailers need to be aggressive in protecting downtown's image.

"We must be vigilant," said Bob Friday, president of the Annapolis Business Association. "We need to keep a balance."

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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