Bill targets corner stores

City official seeks to prevent retail use of space near houses

May 28, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Before cars and before supermarkets, Baltimore depended on its corner stores, conveniently tucked into rowhouse neighborhoods so that groceries and incidentals were rarely more than footsteps away.

Though the city shops differently now and officials generally try to keep residential areas commerce-free, the shells of those former stores endure, vexing some, tickling the entrepreneurial imaginations of others.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes communities where the vacant storefronts are considered crime magnets, has introduced legislation that would prevent people from trying to reinvigorate former store space in residential areas.

"Things have changed in so many neighborhoods," Clarke says. "These corner stores become magnets for drug trade, gambling, loitering. They become neighborhood nuisances."

While Clarke's constituents - particularly those in the Lake Montebello area - applaud her initiative, some in the city's more gentrified neighborhoods, where former storefronts have been turned into everything from coffeehouses to used book stores to chic restaurants, worry that the law would preclude those options.

City zoning law discourages mixing a store into an otherwise residential block - planners call it a "nonconforming use." Longtime neighborhood shops are grandfathered in, but if one should close for more than a year, keeping the property commercial can be difficult.

Clarke's bill, however, would close an exemption for the city's densest neighborhoods. In places like Charles Village, Waverly, Canton and Fells Point, property owners can forever preserve the option of opening another store as long as they keep the first floor vacant. That's one reason why, in certain areas, there are so many rowhouses with papered-over storefronts and families living on the second and third floors.

Recent spirited disputes over abandoned nonconforming property inspired Clarke to draft the bill. In Tuscany-Canterbury, residents blocked a fraternity from moving back into its house in the middle of a serene block of pricey homes. And in a neighborhood near Lake Montebello, neighbors mobilized to prevent a small grocery from reopening on Chilton Street.

Mark Washington, executive director of Coldspring-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp., says his area desperately needed a way to stop those corner groceries from settling into the neighborhood.

He calls them "groceries" reluctantly. "They aren't the type of things that would lead to a healthy lifestyle for the neighborhood," he says. "You're getting chips, sodas, blunts, rolling papers. ... To suggest these stores are responsible economic development would be a little disingenuous."

Washington said some in the community have been trying to work with developers to convert the vacant storefronts into homes.

"We feel homeownership brings a more stable influence to a community," he says. "These are primarily residential neighborhoods, and the residents want to keep them that way."

The exemption that allows property owners in some city neighborhoods to keep their options open dates back nearly 30 years. Ironically, Clarke sponsored legislation in 1981 that gave the exemption to more communities - she was trying to help people who owned homes near Memorial Stadium open stores to capitalize on game day traffic.

Clarke, surprised to learn that she sponsored that bill, says jokingly, "I've met the enemy and it is us."

In some parts of town, neighborhood leaders have higher hopes for their vacant storefronts. Around Fells Point, for instance, a cafe specializing in soup and muffins recently opened in a former corner store slot just blocks from a storefront where young people last year experimented with a used-book store. Salt, one of the city's most acclaimed new restaurants, opened at the intersection of two purely residential blocks in Butchers Hill.

Jeremy Fennema, president of the Fells Point Development Corp., says he'd hate for legislation to prevent new businesses from opening in the residential parts of the community.

"We really tried hard to protect those areas 'cause we knew that they'd come back," he says, suggesting that Clarke might be wise to make her law more specific in order to target certain types of grocery stores but not, say, coffee shops or boutiques.

"The law might be great for the areas Mary Pat Clarke is having problems with," Fennema says, "but implementing it in a citywide fashion might not be the best thing."

In Federal Hill, Paul Quinn, president of the neighborhood association, says mixing commercial enterprises into otherwise residential streets can be charming.

"It's a service, as long as it doesn't attract the wrong kind of people," he says. "In order to solve one problem, you might end up preventing good opportunities in other communities."

Washington doesn't think the bill would prevent any desirable shops from opening in his area. And he wishes those in other parts of town who might oppose Clarke's law better understood his "hard reality."

"While we would love a cute coffee shop, we have never been approached by one of these business entities," he says. "We only hear from glass bin tombs of grocery stores or snack food stores or caged retail establishments."

Clarke says she would welcome citywide feedback on her bill.

"I'm sure there are two sides to the story," Clarke says. "We have to hear it out, but I want to put my side out there."

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