Second Street services in High Street storefronts.

A little while back, in a meticulously photographed post on the blog Urban Indy, I noted many emergent urban main street corridors that fall short of their full potential for a single simple reason: they can’t secure the optimal types of tenants. It was a challenging post, because I felt like I was taking two broad swipes. First, to some respondents, it seemed that I was knocking Massachusetts Avenue as whole, which had already made great strides in transforming from Indy’s Skid Row in the 1980s to a pretty active mixed-use corridor (and it has improved considerably since 2013). Secondly, I criticized the type of tenants that I felt were unnecessarily hogging first-floor space: the law firms, insurance agents, architecture, realtors, and so forth—using storefronts that should go to retail.

Three years have passed, and the fundamentals to my argument remain valid, in my opinion. Not only do such law offices and accounting firms fail to capitalize on the expansive windows of that a main street like Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis has to offer (or any other main street for that matter), their operating hours are antithetical to the times when entertainment-based main streets thrive: evenings and weekends. And even during the regular business day, keeping those curtains open confers no benefits; it probably just creates annoying glare for the workers on their computers inside. A commercial main street that depends too heavily on these white-collar services is unlikely to attract the pedestrian traffic that one might expect if the tenants are mostly retail, or other options that offer clear sensory stimulation through the windows (restaurants, salons, escape rooms, tasting rooms). Obviously a truly diversified neighborhood needs law and insurance as much as any other services, but they can flourish just as easily on the second and third or nineteenth floors of office buildings. So why do we continue to see accounting firms occupying storefronts at pedestrian level?

It’s a condition hardly unique to automobile-oriented Midwestern cities. South Philadelphia offers a similar example in the East Passyunk corridor.

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When I was a student in Philly a little over a decade ago, this main street—only one northbound lane for the most part—was tired and neglected, hosting shops that were never in fashion even back when their kitschy signs were new. (I blogged about the infamous King of Jeans store a few years ago when the sign finally came down….several years after the store itself closed.) What else did East Passyunk offer? Locksmiths, school uniforms, discount clothing, tax preparation, undistinguished pizza parlors. The mostly Italian-American neighborhood was by no means blighted, but the corridor was hardly the lifeblood it once might have been. Today, it’s a completely different story.IMG_3811IMG_3813

It’s one of the hottest neighborhoods in Philly, and a key factor in its appeal are the shops along this old trolley corridor—and originally a Native American trail—at a jaunty angle from the rest of South Philadelphia’s strict grid. This atypical configuration results in a fair number of three-way intersections for East Passyunk, as well as some micro-plazas created from the residual triangles left when three streets don’t align perfectly.

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I’ve covered this neighborhood multiple times in the past, and upon each visit, the visual signals of old South Philly appear increasingly scarce, replaced by fashionable restaurants, mini-grocers, and other specialty shops. And now, it appears even the decades-old “A Man’s Image” is preparing for closure.

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Not only do retail corridors such as East Passyunk offer the most potent visual evidence of gentrification, they help galvanize it. Median home values in the formerly modest neighborhood have tripled in the last decade, and every month or so, another old-time storefront bites the dust, replaced by awnings and signage that manifest the much deeper pockets among newcomers. At this point, the juxtaposition of old and new is still obvious.

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Until recently, East Passyunk seemed to have the national market cornered on school uniform shops. They’re still abundant but not quite as ubiquitous as in the past. I suspect they’re a byproduct of the many stable Italian-American families in the area, which, though rarely wealthy, still saved enough coin to avoid Philadelphia’s troubled public school system by enrolling their children in one of the neighborhood’s numerous Catholic schools that still mandate uniforms. (Then again, don’t most public schools require uniforms as well?) Regardless, these old vendors of tasteful apparel stand cheek-by-jowl with hip cafés today.

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The transformation of East Passyunk is likely to continue unabated, with costly, customized signage replacing the sun-blanched placards from days of yore. Most of the new merchants clearly target a demographic with considerable disposable income, and these tenants strive to enhance the foot traffic through carefully cultivated window displays, al fresco dining, or even a complete reinvention of a façade, like this fashionable newish restaurant:

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But not every new tenant is primed to help East Passyunk return to its glory days as a vibrant corridor. As is the case along Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis, several of the tenants don’t quite fit as comfortably into the mix.

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That’s right: it’s a law firm. And not, surprisingly, on a Saturday afternoon, when most of Passyunk is bustling, it’s closed.

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Robert Brand Law embodies the predicament of wedging contemporary consumer culture in an urban form from yesteryear. It takes no amount of scrutiny to deduce that this law firm occupies a storefront originally designed for retail. Just look at those display windows.

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But what in God’s green earth is a law firm supposed to do with them? This office decided to place some art installations—because, obviously, something is better than nothing. But it’s a good twenty square feet of underutilized space, because sidewalk appeal clearly isn’t how a law office attracts new business. Nonetheless, this firm decided it wanted to occupy a first floor storefront along this prominent urban main street.

And who am I to begrudge Robert Brand and his staff? They have just as much right to a storefront as anyone else. But if the firm truly depended on visuals to lure new business, it would have come up with something a bit more arresting. After all, leasable space along Passyunk in this day and age cost serious money. Yet, despite the comparatively drab presentation, Robert Brand Law has apparently earned recognition for its artistry:IMG_3793

I have to give them credit: the lettering above the doorway offers a solid mid-century modern revival.

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And the neighboring storefronts aren’t likely to win any awards for that matter:

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But at least they’re open on Saturdays. Truth be told, much of the retail mix along East Passyunk hasn’t happened quite as organically as one might think. The East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District has wielded tremendous influence. While the average Business Improvement District (BID) exacts modest fees from business owners within its jurisdiction to help promote, maintain and unify the streetscape, East Passyunk has deeper pockets and literally redevelops by buying the aging buildings, refurbishing them, then selling them to the tenants it feels are optimal for elevating the aggregate value of the corridor. My suspicion is that East Passyunk BID has helped harness what it sees as reliable prospective tenants who provide as diverse an array of goods and services as possible. The BID aims to minimize periods where storefronts are tenantless, which means that well-leveraged operations such as law firms may not dazzle the eye or add much vibrancy on a weekend, but they help contribute to the main street’s overall business saturation. What the BID has achieved is particularly remarkable in that, to this day, East Passyunk has no national chains that I’m aware of—not even a Starbucks. Quite surprising, considering that chains are often most likely to afford these escalating rents.

 

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And, to the credit of East Passyunk BID, one other factor failed to emerge from my initial criticism of FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) businesses taking prominent storefonts: retail is in dire straits. None of my respondents on the original Urban Indy article managed to recognize how difficult it is to run a business selling durable goods from a storefront in this era of online shopping. Nor did I. But this challenge explains why truly great novelty commercial streets—like Passyunk Avenue and, to a lesser extent, Massachusetts Avenue in Indy (which does have a Starbucks)—must attract whatever they can to fill the vacancies. Despite the manifest renaissance of urban America, it isn’t flourishing as a carbon copy of the old main street from 1920, when everyone ran their most utilitarian errands on streets like Passyunk. The thriving modern main street is more leisure-oriented and a lot more epicurean. More patrician too. Restaurants are a surefire bet in this foodie scene; so are salons and spas. But apparel? Specialty gifts? Increasingly hard to find. Meanwhile, the restaurants and salons that succeed—all while keeping good weekend and evening hours—are fundamentally service-oriented establishments. Just like the white-collar insurance agencies, accounting firms, architecture. And Robert Brand Law.

 

11 thoughts on “Second Street services in High Street storefronts.

  1. Chris Barnett

    My student days in Philly were decades ago. Back then the only reason to venture onto Passyunk was a certain world famous eatery at 9th, which was always bustling at 2am. 🙂

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That “certain world famous eatery” is several blocks north of the area I just wrote about. And it (whichever you mean by “eatery”) is still doing just fine…with the tourists. And, naturally, because the tourists flock there, the locals have long since given up, and most will swear by just about any other name for their cheesesteaks.

      You can’t find a cheesesteak stand on this section of East Passyunk. Nor would you find a Philly pretzel bakery. And the last “wudder ice” stand closed about a year ago. Even pizza is hard to find on East Passyunk. But you WILL find high-end Scandinavian dining, or a party/escape room that exclusively recreates the 1980s. The times are changin’.

      Reply
      1. Chris Barnett

        I know you were referring to the section further south, but in my Philly days all of South Philly was white ethnic, with undistinguished neighborhood serving storefronts on the shopping streets, and this has changed immensely since the late 70s. (I realized there were invisible boundaries throughout South Philly then, when I saw on opposite corners of the same intersection two different ethnic Catholic parishes. That’s also an indication of why there were historically so many uniform stores in storefronts on the shopping streets.)

        A cheesesteak from an old-fashioned (i.e. plain, workingman’s) lunch truck or any old Italian hole-in-the-wall is probably the state of the art in Philly today, for actually eating a real, freshly made Philly cheesesteak. (As a quasi-native with lots of family in the area, I also avoid Pat’s.) But back in the day it served a function like White Castle does in Indy, or Skyline in Cincinnati. It really was as depicted in “Rocky”…you could see folks from every walk of life there at midnight or 2am.

        Reply
  2. Steve Polston

    Hi — another good post! I think you rightly describe the first-floor street-side situation. Epicurean is a delightful designation, as is FIRE — for what works and what sometimes is necessary to pay the cost of keeping these old buildings standing.

    In my household in Indianapolis we marvel at some street-side storefronts that are so wrongly cast for today’s tastes. Insurance agents and dry cleaners make the world go ’round, but the happy feet and mouths are for food and drink. Some new restaurants are so successful that they actually (gasp!) close one day a week, or don’t open until 4 p.m. (shocking!) and have (OMG!) opened up second restaurants nearby as different expressions of the same brand. I’ve never seen a realtor open a similar service under a different name in the same block, or a dry cleaner open a tailoring shop across the street.

    Thank you for always providing food for thought and refreshing observations.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks, Steve for your astute observations, and you may be onto something with those restaurant operating hours. Sundays and Mondays seem to be the preferred days to close, since most eateries seem to drum up less business on those days. But I can’t help but wonder if a place is actually more likely to open seven days a week after it has proven itself, rather than closing an extra day. For example, I noticed from last last time in Indy, the Virginia Avenue restaurant corridor features newcomers like Pioneer and Marrow, both of which close at least one day a week. Meanwhile, the more established Bluebeard is open seven days a week now, and can still do pretty solid business on a Sunday evening (as I learned firsthand). My guess is some of the other places have determined they can’t generate a guaranteed profit on Sunday/Monday to justify opening…just a thought.

      But it had never occurred to me what you suggested about the spinoff restaurants, and I think that’s a brilliant observation that further justifies a retail/restaurant focus, as opposed to FIRE and architecture/engineering/etc. A restaurateur can cater to multiple tastes in a four-block space, with each one enjoying a profit without ever experiencing the drawback that comes from competition siphoning some of the business. The “restaurant row” that has emerged in many cities is probably just the latest variant on clustering economics. Correct me if I’m wrong: but aren’t Mesh, Union 50 and Vida owned by the same guy? And each is about a 5-8 minute walk from the another? And didn’t the owners of Silver in the City have a similar “___ in the City” store until a few years ago? I think retail can pull off the clustering just as well as restaurants, as long as the concept is sufficiently distinct. Conversely, accounting firms are unlikely to find a real incentive to open another variant on accounting in the same ‘hood. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

      Reply
      1. Chris Barnett

        Eric, Cunningham Restaurant Group operates Mesh, Union 50, Vida, and Bru Burger on the east side of downtown Indy, as well as Cafe 251 in Capital Center. (Before Vida opened, there was an announced plan to have that location serve as a “test kitchen” for all the Cunningham brands).

        At some point a company like Cunningham becomes a chain; I think they’re past it. Stone Creek has six locations in two states, and Bru has four in three states. I agree that they’re “mini-chains” or distinct brands, and they offer complementary variety within a destination neighborhood…but how is that (developmentally or economically speaking) really different than Applebee’s, Chili’s, O’Charley’s, and Ruby Tuesday clustering in suburban mall locations?

        The one difference I see is that the urban mini-chains do draw “destination dining” and also destination shopping from all over a metro area; it’s highly unlikely that a Chatham Arch/Mass Ave/Lockerbie area resident will jump in a car and make a run to Ruby Tuesday’s in Greenwood.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Chris, I’m hardly the best judge as to when a restaurant replicates itself enough to become a bona fide chain. Certainly the handful of locations of Bru Burger hardly put it on par with a national brand like Applebee’s, though that may be Cunningham’s long-term aspirations…who knows. If Bru is a chain, then Mass Ave is dominated by chains. After all, both The Eagle and Bakersfield are expanding “concept dining” from a restaurateur in Cincinnati.

          You make a good point in your final paragraph, and now matter how much a successful local business grows beyond its original location, these locations still feel homegrown, sufficiently “non-corporate”, even if the idea for Mesh/Union 50/Vida/Bru came from a board room rather than a kitchen. I guess what distinguishes most Mass Ave restaurants from Ruby Tuesday is the same frame of reference we use when we support Meijer or Von Maur (or Boscov’s out here by me) over Walmart and Macy’s.

          Reply
          1. Chris Barnett

            Or Menard’s over HD and Lowe’s.

            Defining “local” is tough. Defining “chain” is tough, similar to the trouble the Government has in defining “small business”. But we usually know it when we see it, and sometimes “smaller chain” or “more local” is the break point.

            It reminds me of a night out with a couple local food advocates on Mass Ave, debating (in a fun-exercise, reductio ad adsurdum sort of way) whether Sun King or Flat 12 was more local to the pub we were in…when both were not more than 5-10 minutes’ walk.

        2. AmericanDirt Post author

          Incidentally, just last night I was in Philly and ate at Barbuzzo, which is part of the family of restaurants co-owned by Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, two of the city’s star restaurateurs. Among their other operations: a chocolate shop, a gourmet food market, a housewares boutique, and 3 other restaurants. All of them are within a single block of 13th Street between Chestnut and Sansom. As Steve pointed out, their clustering has become different expressions of the same brand. And, while the brand may be taking on the expansion-minded ethos of a chain, there’s still enough distinction (and only one location of each) that I get the impression most people in Philly still feel like they’re all distinct mom-and-pop (or mom-and-mama) restaurants.

          Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I hadn’t Naomi–thanks for bringing it to my attention. Looks like East Passyunk might be succumbing to its first national chain…god forbid. But, as I noted, I suspect the East Passyunk BID’s influence is the only reason it hasn’t happened already. Rents have got to be pretty steep in the area…exactly the sort of thing that attracts a Starbucks, a Shake Shack, or some other proven brand with a whole lot more equity than your average hepcat just out of culinary school. It may very well be that the “Man’s Image” store was too big of a space for the local experimental restaurant scene, so they had to get a chain. But at least they found a small, edgy one… I appreciate the observation.

      Reply

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