H-Mart Building of Shepherdstown: an architectural and economic outlier in a perfectly preserved community.

The winsome town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, though in most respects a free-standing municipality, has essentially morphed over the last thirty years into an exurban bedroom community to Washington DC, which lies approximately 70 miles to the southeast. No doubt bolstered by the presence of the well-regarded Shepherd University, the town has an urban, activist sensibility atypical to exurbs in general, let alone exurbs in West Virginia. It also boasts a picturesque, four-star hotel facing the Potomac River, with enough amenities to qualify as a mini-resort. Common to these sort of metropolitan exclaves, it also has an impeccable, picture-perfect main street. IMG_0114 It looks pretty close to 100% occupied, and all of it is either locally owned or small, regional chains, which might as well be mom-and-pops, given the absence of a widely known brand. Many of the shops are eclectic boutiques purveying local curiosities.

IMG_0111

It’s a great main street, albeit a small one—but it does not need to be big to be great. At least 5,000 other small towns across the U.S. would kill to look like Shepherdstown.

Though the core of Shepherdstown’s German Street is a mere two blocks, it has a few other strategically placed commercial buildings on the margins.IMG_0117IMG_0135Great as this early 19th century architecture might be, it’s now time to stray from the preservationist archetypes, over to the stuff that interests me: its exact opposite. Like this building a few blocks away from Shepherdstown’s core.IMG_0147Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, so I’m sure there are some out there who see charm to brown brick and corrugated tin, and by this point, just about any edifice from 1970 (give or take) is reaching an age that one could aptly label “vintage”. But even those who don’t consider the H-Mart Building (that’s what I’ll call it) an eyesore will have to acknowledge that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of Shepherdstown’s colonial vernacular. Just a block away, also on Princess Street, we get more customary buildings:IMG_0120And then there’s H-Mart.

So how did this brown ogre invade the rural charm? Here’s my guess: like most communities, Shepherdstown faced some economic hardship by the middle of the 20th century, as its aging commercial buildings no longer aligned with a population hungry for automobile oriented conveniences. Some buildings fell into neglect and even dilapidation; before the historic preservation movement achieved any widespread influence, the most obsolete of these old buildings faced the wrecking ball. An enterprising developer from the late 1960s probably saw a better opportunity to retain this corner of Princess and Washington Street’s high commercial earning potential, but it needed a critical distinguishing feature: off-street parking.IMG_0148That parking needed to be abundant and widely visible. After all, this developer was giving us a bit more than a typical mid-century strip mall; it was going to have a second floor. Two tiers of commercial uses (a Floor-Area Ratio of 2.0) are unprecedented for a town of less than 2,000 people. Heck, a two-floor strip mall isn’t all that common even in high-performing suburbs of major metros. But apparently these developers thought they could pull it off. And thus, nearly fifty years later, the H-Mart Building remains the only auto-oriented shopping center in Shepherdstown’s .37 square mile municipal limits.

Does it stand the test of time? Well…H-Mart BuildingIt’s clearly not empty. And on a quiet Saturday afternoon, the primary parking lot is almost half-full. It has another, larger parking lot behind the building, which I failed to capture by photo, but this Google Street View suggests that it serves a separate single row of shops (the upper level to this same structure). At this juncture, the H-Mart Building features its eponymous convenience store, a physical therapy clinic, a natural foods store, a reiki studio, a family practice physician, and a business management consultant. At least three of the storefronts are vacant.

It’s probably unfair to pass too extreme of judgment on the H-Mart Building’s overall financial viability based on the tenant mix. These conditions could change wildly from month to month, especially in today’s volatile retail climate. But two generalizations emerge: first, the H-Mart Building does not seem to attract much conventional storefront retail; instead, it gets service providers who don’t really need big, splashy window displays or a great pedestrian scene. Nothing against physical therapists or management consultants, but these are lower-caliber tenants when it comes to retail properties, which I’ve blogged about here before, as well as (more thoroughly) on Urban Indy. Quite simply, they don’t depend on eye-catching structures or abundant parking the same way, for example, a toy store or formal clothing store might. This tendency probably explains why so many of windows at the H-Mart Building seem to have their blinds pulled; not only do they not need people peering into their windows, they’re probably not open on the weekends. All those curtains, though, make the shopping center look less occupied then it actually is.

The second generalization more reflects the cultural shift away from consumption patterns that dominated from about 1950 to 2010. Even if the H-Mart Building isn’t in bad shape, it’s still much more vacant than the commercial buildings along German Street in the heart of Shepherdstown. It’s not as attractive of a piece of commercial real estate, and I’d say it’s almost guaranteed that it commands lower leasing rates than those lovely buildings that bring tourists to Shepherdstown on weekends when the weather’s nice. In other words, all that parking out front of the H-Mart Building is no longer a selling point. And while it may not yet be a detraction—a convenience store like H-Mart no doubt finds it very convenient—its anomalous architecture may eventually seem like more of a drawback than the ease of parking. In fact, that might already be the case: Shepherdstown doesn’t earn its reputation as a well-preserved town from the stuff that dates back to the Nixon Administration. After all, this is WV, not LV (Las Vegas).

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9 thoughts on “H-Mart Building of Shepherdstown: an architectural and economic outlier in a perfectly preserved community.

  1. AvatarChris B

    My first thoughts: with the terrain and the 2-level loading, the 2+ FAR does generate additional parking needs, but it also makes for cheaper space…obvious in the lower-value, lower traffic, lower intensity uses (other than the H-mart).

    The building holds intriguing possibilities for repurposing with residential uses on the upper level. With a re-skin that metal facade wouldn’t be so awful, and the dark brick could be painted.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Indeed, it’s not the worst. I can’t tell (and can’t remember) about the back-loaded second floor, but part of that parking lot also seems to serve a series of self-storage units to the east, but they would have minimal parking needs. If demand for more housing in Shepherdstown escalates, then your proposal could hold promise. Then again, a developer may choose to demo and build something with a 3+ FAR on site, taking advantage of the slope for somewhat cheaper covered parking that won’t require a full excavation. While that seems like a long way off, I have a feeling that well-preserved exurbs are going to become very lucrative in the future, to serve as walkable hubs to low-density exurban living. For those who want good schools but don’t need a big patch of land, a condo or townhome in Shepherdstown could be just the ticket.

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        Yes. Thinking about our hometown as a good example, the suburban/exurban hubs are the county seats and quaint small towns a county out from the urban core: Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Franklin, Mooresville, Greenfield, Danville, Lebanon. When the well-to-do colonize those towns, it has the effect of preserving the quaint core (Zionsville’s brick main street, for instance).

        DC, being so much bigger, with more edge cities on its beltway (looking at you, Rockville, Tysons, Columbia, etc.) probably extends the reach at least another 40-50 miles out along the commuter highways. When I looked at the map, Shepherdstown appeared to be about an hour from Tysons…ultra commute, but people do that. And there are many more old towns (and older towns) along the east face of the Blue Ridge/Allegheny mountains.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Sure sounds like this proposed project in Zionsville is on par with what both of us are talking about. https://www.ibj.com/blogs/21-north-of-96th/post/73036-hart-proposing-40m-apartment-community-near-zionsvilles-downtown

          And yes, you’re right about those edge cities and their relation to DC metro. I’d put Shepherdstown on par with Front Royal, VA (in terms of distance), or, in a different direction, Culpeper, which has grown astronomically in recent years. By DC standards, a town like Zionsville would have been completely engulfed years ago, would have received not just townhome proposals but midrise condos (up to 6 stories probably, instead of 5 as in Indiana) and would be completely unaffordable for all but the top 5-10% income earners.

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  2. AvatarBrian M

    The NIMBY opposition to the Zionsville project is pretty amazing.

    NOTHING, and I repeat NOTHING, compares, though, to the comment on a project in my California exurb…that a new mixed use apartment development replacing an empty home and garden store would “allow pedophiles to live near the childcare center”.

    I did like this, though:

    “There’s no “authenticity” – it’s just NIMBY.”

    Reply
  3. AvatarBrian M

    And Gawd….just shows the blue tribe versus red tribe viewpoint. There was a comment on the newspaper site that Mike Pence was a paragon of virtue and restraint. Gag me. One reason I could not move back, even though I often find the social justice warrior posturing of the modern “left” tiresome.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      So now “NIMBY” is an adjective? I can at least golf-clap at the creativity of the attempt…

      I think I saw that same article you’re referencing.

      I try to shy away from overt politics on this blog, as is obvious. But I’ll at least concede a few things. I have no plans in the near future to return to Indiana, but I would perfectly comfortable with the prospect of it happening someday. After all, it is a more ideologically diverse place than where I currently live (Indianapolis absolutely). And, from what I know of Indiana politics in recent years, the only thing greater than Mike Pence’s political ambitions is the void where a vision for the nation should be. But, re-reading what I think was the article you’re referring to, it says “model of temperance and transcendence over pettiness”. Separating my dislike for the man’s sanctimony from the man himself, I can’t say I entirely disagree with this statement. Pence, who road Trump’s coattails when it looked like he was going to lose re-election in Indiana, has proven a surprisingly astute choice, regardless of what you think of the politics themselves. Even if I disagree heavily with Pence’s worldview, I keep trying to find evidence where he failed to show restraint or took the low road, and I can’t come up with anything. He’s been a perfect foil to the Commander-in-Chief, who is absolutely never able to show restraint on anything and rarely takes the high road.

      That said, if the statement in the article was more about what you just referenced, “a paragon of virtue and restraint”, I just might have a similar gag reflex. I can’t reconcile what I know about Pence with the word “virtue”. I’m deeply suspicious of applying that word to just about anyone.

      Reply
  4. AvatarBrian M

    Sorry for the political snark. Mea culpa. There is diversity everywhere, of course. Fort Wayne is pretty purple.

    As I approach retirement (very soon), the real estate market in Indiana is pretty tempting. 🙂 I couldn’t give up the California landscape, though. I know there is certainly beauty in the Midwest, but I absolutely love the California landscape.

    Reply
    1. AvatarChris B

      Beachfront w/no mountains, NW IN. Michigan wineries not far.

      Forested hills ‘n’ hollers, with some beautiful vistas and small “beaches” on Monroe and Patoka lakes, near Bloomington. A decent winery or two nearby. Smaller lake developments abound if “water” is important. IU has a lot of cultural offerings.

      I’ve just learned to live with the politics. 🙂

      Reply

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