Living A Step Above

For some business owners, going home at the end of the day means hitting the staircase instead of the highway

November 04, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

When Luann Carra brings work home, she doesn't commute far. She takes a few steps from her gift shop into her kitchen.

Her store, Zoe's Garden, is in what 11 years ago was the living and dining room of her Fells Point home.

"I can do business stuff on the kitchen island," she said. But she also can whisk work away quickly and prepare dinner there. Or relax on the futon and watch TV.

Neighborhood friends are a customer base.

"People know that I live here," she said. "People will knock and I'm in my pajamas. And they say, `Luann, let me in, I really need a gift, help me out.' "

Having both personal and private space in one old city building means using every inch smartly -- deciding how much work and home will overlap and using the space accordingly.

For Carra, it's meant renovations on the third floor. The choppy space became a bedroom with a big closet across the wall and a full bathroom next to it.

The second floor is a rental apartment. And she shares the basement space, too: It is home to a wellness center, but her koi pond and crafts are there. It's a great place for her to meditate.

While home offices and home-based businesses are common, living above one's urban store or restaurant is not. Carra and the smattering of people like her in Fells Point and elsewhere are a throwback to eras when urban neighborhoods were practically their own little towns, eons before strip shopping centers and mammoth malls existed. The practice continues in many European cities and elsewhere.

"If you went back 300 years, it happened all the time. You read about it all the time with regard to London, in Dickens," said Deborah Ford, the director of the bachelor of science program in real estate and economic development at the University of Baltimore.

Walk through Baltimore and other old cities and urban districts, she said, and you can see ground-floor storefronts and upstairs residences.

"Once we started [building] the suburbs -- it's not allowed under most zoning codes," she said, because they separate commercial areas from residential ones.

In short, you can't live above the mall.

The economics, especially shriveled commuting costs, of living above one's business hold appeal. "Certainly it would be a lot cheaper to have one building and not live somewhere else," Ford said.

A down side of not having a commute is the loss of that "alone" time.

But it can be convenient. Helena Smedly, who operates Smedly's in Fells Point, runs upstairs to throw laundry in the dryer when she can spare a few minutes at the cafe.

Lovell Smith, a sociology professor at Loyola College, said in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, shopkeepers may have a lot in common with their local customers, making them a good fit as residents.

Urban life promoters say it can be a bonus for a city neighborhood when owners' business and personal interests are tied to one area.

"It shows more investment in the community," said Chad Hayes, director of commercial revitalization for Belair-Edison, where a couple of business owners live atop their stores.

The key to making it work, owners said, is setting limits on the home and work overlap, as well as what space is public and private, which are different for each owner.

Owners say they have to do that also so that they can get away from work by going upstairs, not having to run away from home.

"I try really hard to separate myself from the work. When it's time to stop working, you have to stop working," Carra said.

Others want a bigger separation.

Six years ago, Cray and Suzanne Merrill bought and redid the Fells Point building where their Brassworks store, restoration shop and office long occupied the ground floor. Cray Merrill won't go upstairs during his work hours and won't go downstairs when he's not working. Their computer is downstairs.

He doesn't bring anything from work home, though decorative boats, birds and brass decorate the place.

"This is our home up here," Suzanne Merrill said.

A more compact life

Moving from Severna Park, the Merrills practically gutted the upper two stories and put on an addition, which won their architect a residential design award in 1993. The home looks old from the street but has a contemporary interior bathed in natural light.

Paramount to them was having places to put things away so they weren't cramped by clutter.

The second-floor den does triple duty. It's a place to relax. The alcove, with a desk, is the office for her property management business. It has a sofa bed for guests, who can use the bathroom a few steps away.

"It's all about storage space," Suzanne Merrill said, opening closet after closet throughout the house, even one under a bend in the staircase to the third floor.

On the third floor, an old blanket chest really holds blankets.

"We squeezed an extra foot here," she said, pointing to skinny floor-to-ceiling bookcases and cupboards in the hallway that face a plant-laden deck on part of the second-floor roof.

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