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The Loop: Eclectic Stores vs. National Chains

Recently I read about two chain restaurants taking over the Streetside Records building on Delmar in the Loop. The store was not closing but the building owner made a deal to lease the space to two chain restaurants when the Streetside lease expires. To everyone upset about the loss of “record” stores, don’t be. When was the last time you passed a typewriter store? Markets shift and like it or not records are like 8 track tapes. Hell, I can’t even recall the last time I purchased a physical CD — certainly before the iTunes Music Store opened.

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This week the RFT had a follow up story on the subject of chain stores in the loop, it seems some local merchants want to set a limit on the number of chain establishments:

Spearheading the move to institute a cap on chains is Patrick Liberto, owner of Meshuggah Café, who says the incursion of two new restaurants spurred him to action.

“We are going to lose our eclectic qualities. We’re going to look like Clayton,” Liberto complains. “The Loop is going to get a lot less interesting to people if they see the same things here that they see in their own neighborhood.”

Liberto wants to set a limit that no more than ten formula restaurants and ten retail chains be permitted in the Loop, and that none can occupy a space greater than 4,000 square feet. The Delmar Loop is home to seven retail chains, including Footlocker and Blockbuster Video. When Chipotle and Noodles & Company arrive, the number of chain eateries will rise to thirteen, versus thirty-four independently owned restaurants.

The irony here is Streetside Records is part of a chain of stores! 

I personally hate chain places, especially chain restaurants. We have so many wonderful locally owned establishments in our region, why go generic. That said, I’m not sure I believe in artificially creating such a cap. First, we must define a chain. Is locally owned Pasta House a “chain” because they have muliple locations? Do we distinquish between a locally owned & operated franchise (say a Subway) vs. a company owned store from a non-local national operator? The St. Louis Bread Co. is most definintely a chain — they had two locations at one time on the loop (disclosure: my investment club is a very minor shareholder in Panera).

The Loop is quite unique to the region but not just because of the mix of the stores & restaurants. The architecture and scale of the place is unique as well. I’ve been to the Noodles & Company at South County mall twice now and I can certainly say the experience is totally unlike going to the Loop. Sure, the food might be the same as well as the interior decor but the Loop still has the right feel I am looking for when I am out and about.

I personally am not a fan of regulating uses, my usual concern is building form which creates the feel of the public space (aka the street). Some franchise places have very strict standards on their signage & storefronts while others are more flexible, allowing adjustment for local flavor.

I think it should be noted “The Loop” is often considered that portion of Delmar in University City — up to the lions heads on the west end. However, over the last few years the portion of Delmar in the City of St. Louis has become quite interesting. I consider them together to be the Delmar Loop or simply the Loop, I never say the U-City Loop. But, it is the U-City portion feeling threatened by the influx of chain stores.

if the merchants want to be concerned about the character of the area and attracting people they need to look at doing something about the bad buildings such as this one:

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These cars are all in for repair. Across the street, within the city limits, is another old gas station that has been boarded for years and the lot is simply used for additional parking.

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At Skinker we have this horrible gas station, hardly a good anchor for a pedestrian district. The next rebuild should require the convenience store functions to be moved to the corner to create more urban context, leaving the pumps in the back less visible to the street.

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The Church’s is no gem either. I believe these types of buildings, not their uses, do more to detract from the loop experience than the addition of a chain noodle shop in an urban building. I’d have not problems with the Church’s in a more urban building form sans drive-thru.

But let’s say you want to make sure you keep attracting the eclectic crowd, not minivans full of suburban families? The Loop merchants need to take a look at the street and see what is missing for their core market. Warning, this is morphing into a brief bike rack rant:
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I stopped by the loop earlier today just to briefly snap a few pictures of the Streetside Records building and in the few minutes I was there I noticed four bicycles in front of several shops across the street.

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Two parking meters, a sign post and finally a tree. Wait, what is that in the background? Yes, an old fashioned “dish drainer” style of bike rack. These are horrible, no wonder none of these cyclists decided to use it. First, it doesn’t look well secured — someone could steal the bike & rack. Second, when you put your front tire between the smaller vertical bars it can warp your front rim. Place your mountain bike tire in the wide opening and the bike easily falls over (I don’t think most of these bikes had kick stands). It also makes it hard to lock the frame securely – especially when using U-shape locks as the first three are. The Loop group needs to think about proper bike racks if they plan to keep their core customers.

But the debate really isn’t about chains, gas stations or even bike racks, it is about money. As owners of buildings decide to retire or when they die the buildings get sold for current market value. As such, new owers seek to recoup their investments with higher rents. Chain stores with deep pockets or local franchisee’s seeking to establish a business seek out thriving areas like the Loop.   Do places that can’t afford the newer rents need to think about relocating to other commercial districts in their price range? Of course, if many of the local places leave that will hurt the chains as well as they moved in because of the foot traffic the area generated. Areas can become so popular they hurt themselves.

The RFT article talks about a “tipping point” of having too many chains to the point where people stop coming because a place has become too generic. The problem is, in my view, is that is so hard to quantify. What number of chain restaurants or retailers is the right number? Is it simply quantity or a percentage of the streetfront or square footage? Maybe some retail experts have done some research but then I’d want to know who paid for the reseach.

My advice to the smaller local merchants: get a long term lease, buy your building, plan for higher rents in the future or think about options for new locations.


Currently there are "44 comments" on this Article:

  1. Tyson says:

    I agree with your advice at the end of the post.
    The business owners are right to be concerned about the quality of the new businesses that open in their district, but framing the issue as a chain vs. independent issue misses the point. It’s not as if a KFC/Pizza Hut is opening there. Chipotle/Noodles Co. will most likely bring more foot traffic to the area than the Streetside ever did. As far as the Loop being overrun with chains, any independent that offers a unique enough environment and does good business (blueberry hill, fitz’s, Tivoli) has nothing to fear. And I’d argue it just takes a handful of these independents to make the Loop a unique destination. In fact, sometimes I drive out of my way to go Qdoba in the loop, simply because I like to sit and watch people walk by as I eat as opposed to staring out at a parking lot. What I’m saying is that a lot of the Loop’s uniqueness is rooted in its physical environment, and not as much in its retail choices (at least not as much as the retail owners themselves would have you believe).

    Furthermore, I question the degree to which simply mandating a certain number of independents (or putting a cap on chains, as it were) can really keep the area from going upscale. The fact is that the Loop is a desirable place to be. It’s desirable commercially, residentially, and in time I believe it will be a desirable place for office space. People are always going to be willing to pay more to be in a desirable place, whether its the Loop or a beachfront or whatever. These merchants are in a profit-making venture, and as such they should pony up to be keep their shop in an increasingly desirable place. If they decide the cost isn’t worth it, there are plenty of other disused little business districts around the city that offer affordable space and could use the investment; indeed this is how down-on-their-luck cities have been revitalizing for decades, I’m glad to see it finally happening here.

    “We’re going to look like Clayton”

    Ohh the horror!

  2. Adam says:

    steve, despite your assurance i WILL be upset over the departure of another record store. i still prefer CDs and the occasional vinyl over downloads. i LIKE going to the record store. it’s an enjoyable experience and i already spend too much time on the computer.

    in any case i thought streetside was moving to another location in/near the loop. i don’t think they’re closing.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Yes, Streetside is relocating the store, although I am not sure where.  Many people enjoy flipping through albums or CDs and I think we’ll continue to see stores serving this market.  It may be small stores such as the one on Grand or the one on Cherokee.]

  3. Mike G. says:

    I live by the loop and walk there almost everyday. I don’t mind a chain store, but I can do without another chain of semifast mexican food. A bit saturated already with the ones we have.

    Mike G.

  4. LisaS says:

    “The RFT article talks about a “tipping point” of having too many chains to the point where people stop coming because a place has become too generic.”

    In younger days, before I became wise, urbane, and elitist, I would have seen a bunch of chain restaurants and stores on a street as a positive, familiar place. People–and particular suburban Americans, who take no risks on anything–want a sure thing. That’s why tourist areas look more and more alike these days, whether downtown Denver, the edges of the French Quarter in N’awlins (before Katrina, I fear going back to see what’s happened since), or Ballpark Village. I was shocked on my last two trips to Europe to see the same phenomenon taking hold there–the same stores in Florence, Rome, Seville …

    and I agree with you Steve, the bigger threat is the bleeding edges of automotive development at Skinker, which is, incidentally, the City’s corner of the Loop.

  5. Don says:

    I can see Liberto’s point. Tomatillo, back when it was a quick-service burrito bar, was my favorite place to grab a lunch. The food was pretty darned good—better, at any rate than Qdoba. I had to have been one of maybe a dozen total customers, though; Indeed, the business was sold and became a full-service restaurant a year or two ago due, I can only imagine, to competition from the Qdoba. I suppose it must be doing well enough, and though I like the new restaurant, me being one for grabbing a burrito and running, I now visit the Qdoba instead, and it makes me kinda sad. My point: At least once in the loop, the allure of a national chain caused a damn fine local restaurant to close shop.

    Incidentally, that bike rack belongs to Meshhuggah, that is, to Liberto. It’s a horrible bike rack, I hated using it because it’s not bolted down. But it was put there as a response to the fact that U-City wouldn’t install bike racks on Delmar at all. It represents Liberto’s effort to improve the situation at least a little bit.

    Finally, no mention of that horrid SBC, I mean ATT building on Skinker and Delmar? Talk about an uninviting eyesore…but I suppose it’s not going anywhere.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — It is funny, I really liked Tomatillo when it opened.  My only complaint was that the burrito was too big!  Now I am a big guy but I when you try to eat less it doesn’t help to have such huge portions.  Often a single red burrito at Del Taco will satisfy me.  When Tomatillo changed formats I really disliked it.  I’ve never been impressed by Qdoba either.]

  6. Maurice says:

    What is interesting is that the examples sited (the gas station and repair shop) are independent businesses. Yeah, chains aren’t the best thing when there is an overabundance of them, but lets face it, they help pull in the crowds. Do you think Brentwood Commons would be so hot if it wasn’t for the chains?

    I think the closure of Streetside does highlight an issue that small, one store or just several stores businesses face…..that is how do they stay competitive in the face of large companies that can change and adapt to the market forces easier and faster, and spread that high cost out over all of their stores?

  7. Mark B says:

    I can see a cap on independent businesses in places like San Francisco that are nearly completely gentrified being a good thing. If independent businesses are priced out of a neighborhood, where do they go?

    But, near the Loop, there is so much potential for businesses that can’t afford rents to move east. As unique and local businesses, if they attract the amount people they currently do, enough demand would hopefully rise to make Delmar/Skinker intersection a more pedestrian-friendly intersection and the streetscape toward Debaliviere more vibrant. Sure, it sucks that businesses that promote our local culture are put through this trouble. But, there’s so much they could do for our City.

  8. Luftmensch says:

    There’s something hypocritical about Meshuggah’s owner complaining that the Loop is becoming “too vanilla.” Liberto – like most of the business owners – supported the crackdown on “loitering” in the square by the Loop Market, thus killing the wonderful outdoor chess community, the spontaneous drumming, and the other wild and crazy elements that helped make the Loop interesting. They’ve also promoted those stupid and, dare I say, vanilla signs telling you how to behave while in the Loop.

    Further irony: the chess players have been welcomed by the St. Louis Bread Co, granddaddy of all local chains.

    Steve’s criticism of the automotive shop is unfair. Those guys have been there since the Loop was a dangerous place; they DO add to the overall flavor of the street; and they bring in a lot of warm bodies too. A real urban neighborhood should have room for real variety.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — I agree the chess & druming were indeed a special part of The Loop.  Maybe they didn’t spend enough money but I know I’ve spent time hanging in the square simply to enjoy the music and the great people watching. 

    I wasn’t suggesting the auto shop be forced out but if the building is sold have some sort of urban code to ensure any new building would have a good relationshiop to the street.  Currently, they could do with a few less cars on the parking lot (some look like they are simply being stored).]

  9. equals42 says:

    The restriction on chain stores works quite well in Pike’s Market in Seattle. Would you like to go to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s wharf only to find Red Lobster and Bubba Gump your only options? It makes it worthwhile to go to the Loop for independent restaurants instead of visiting the same stores you can find at the local strip mall. That said, it is more than just what storefronts are there. It’s the street, the people, lighting and trees that combine to make the Loop interesting. If they mess with it too much by restricting people’s activities they may kill it without the help of any chain stores.

  10. john says:

    What in the StL area isn’t being attacked by the “mayo-on-white-bread” assault? The Loop like other hip hangouts has too many cars, dominated in space by vehicles, trucks, etc., doesn’t have the right kind of bike racks, and is not as friendly to pedestrian traffic as it should be. But it is still one of the best place to hang, show visitors because of its diversity and it’s all StL has! The Loop is hindered as a people magnet since it’s not a square but a street and thus linnear. W. H. Whyte once said, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people – what is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” Just look at what the County designed in Clayton around the public buildings to get an idea of how abysmal local “people-places” look and feel here.
    Great meeting places are truly wonderful… LisaS, has Piazza Navona changed that much? Two of my favorite places to visit and to appreciate how absolutely wonderful/vibrant mankind can be are Rynek Growny in Krakow and Old Town Square in Prague. Closer to home, spend a day in either the East Village or Greenwich in NY then rate/comment on our local meeting places. No amount of regulation can replace organic growth and I do not believe chain stores/restaurants (whether they are Red Lobster or Hard Rock) will ever provide a “people-friendly” atmosphere.

  11. Jim Zavist says:

    All the chains named (Chipotle, Noodles, Starbucks, Quizno’s, Qdoba, Bread Company, Pasta House, etc.) were, at one time, a single restaurant that opened, like a hermit crab, in second- or third-tier rented space. The first Chipotle replaced a Dolly Madison milk and ice-cream outlet near the University of Denver in an area much like the Loop. The first Quizno’s went into a vacant gas station. The first Qdoba was in a strip mall. They’ve grown because they sell food that people want to buy. Restricting chains would be penalizing success. If local operators feel threatened, it’s because their quality, food and/or service, is not up to the level of the new competition.

    Chains have the advantage of broader name recognition, but the disadvantage of being run by a manager or franchisee, not an owner. Locally-owned places may not be as widely known, but have (hopefully) the big advantage of the daily participation and the passion of a true owner. And, unlike a freeway interchange or a booming suburb, the Loop serves a pretty stable population. People talk and there are many return visits. A chain may have the advantage the first week or two a freshman is on campus at Wash. U., but that advantage disappears quickly – it’s all about “what have you done for me recently?”

    I agree with Steve. Trying to impose limits is not a good idea. What is a “fair” number? How will they be modified as conditions change? Is there (or should there be) any guarantee of commercial success? Better to let the “market” push everyone to do their best than to protect the “incumbents”!

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    That coffee chain that everyone loves to hate, Starbuck’s, opened their first store in Pike Place Market in 1971. Should they get kicked out, now that they’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?!

  13. demolition says:

    An ordinance restricting chain stores would surely be deemed unconstitutional. Talk about elitist snobbery.

  14. Meg says:

    I just have to disagree with “Markets shift and like it or not records are like 8 track tapes”. Records are still being pressed more than most people know. In punk rock, hardcore and indie rock – the records go for high prices and a lot of fans purchase the record, along with the CD. Just because you don’t purchase them doesn’t mean they are not still popular. Vintage Vinyl, Euclid Records and Streetside still have quite a business in selling albums.

  15. Rob says:

    It’s true, vinyl sales have increased for 2 years now, back up to 1998 levels. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9598796

    But its not really relevant here, because everyone knows the place to go in St. Louis for records is Euclid (or the czech center), not the loop.

  16. DB says:

    “I just have to disagree with “Markets shift and like it or not records are like 8 track tapes”. Records are still being pressed more than most people know.”

    Yes, and you can still buy a typewriter too.

    Records are dead. CDs are dying. Get over it.

  17. LisaS says:

    John, no, Piazza Navona hadn’t really changed when I was there a couple of years ago–the major spaces seemed mostly intact. But what had changed were the stores in the warrens of little shopping streets (like around the Piazza D’Spagna) that are such a joy to explore in European towns. Where 10 years ago there were unique shops, it’s now largely like the American malls, the same stores adjacent to one another, whether you’re in Verona, Milan, or Granada. The Gap had even moved into Florence. I was horrified. I don’t beleive in making artificial limits–doing so here in the CWE quashed our development for many years, from what I’m told–but at the same time …. does everything have to be so white bread to be considered “safe”? Is “safe” and predictable actually a good thing?

    And after re-reading my previous post, I wanted to be clear that in saying “wise, urbane, & elitist” I was poking fun at myself–and taking a sideways glance at some of the other “regulars” on this site. Most of us are cradle suburbanities, grown up to recognize the error of our (parents’) ways. The “E-word” in particular is one that I hate to use because once it’s out, it tends to be repeated over and over. But that word is often applied to me because I refuse to shop at the Mall or at Walmart if there is any other option, go out of my way to avoid chain food (eating local chains if that’s the best choice), and prefer to shop in my home jurisdiction above all others–except for shoes, then it’s definitely Florence. 😉

  18. equals42 says:

    Where in the constitution does it grant protection to large chain stores, Demolition? States and local authorities maintain authority to regulate zoning. Determining which type and size of establishment is well within those powers. Do you think no one has challenged Pike’s Market in 30 years? Starbucks can stay since they were NOT a large chain when it opened at Pike’s as a coffee, tea and spices shop.

    This is not elitist snobbery. It is purposeful planning of an indigenous retail culture that differentiates itself beyond the typical strip mall design decisions of signage and external building design.

  19. Chris says:

    While I lament the coming of Chipotle to the U City Loop, I also realize that this is the pattern of development in all urban revivals. First you have a rundown area that attracts artists and unique shops, then it starts to get popular and then all of the sudden rents are sky high, forcing the pattern to start all over again somewhere else. The point about the ST. LOUIS portion of Delmar starting to show promise illustrates this point perfectly. I once joked that the Loop can stretch to the east another four or five miles if need be–there’s plenty of room for growth–and who knows, perhaps one day Kingshighway and Delmar will be the east end of the Loop.

    What annoys me about some of these posts is that people only are using their own experiences as evidence. Despite some people thinking CD’s are dead–only apparently because they no longer buy them–I know plenty of people that still enjoy sifting through the racks at Vintage Vinyl. However, I won’t really miss Streetside Records; they never really had anything I wanted.

    So anyways, let’s look at the gentrification of the Loop as not merely a bad thing, but rather the catalyst for the revival of currently rundown neighborhoods–of which there are countless in the city. South Grand, for instance, looks a lot like the Loop of 15 years ago.

  20. demolition says:

    Regulate all you want, just don’t discriminate against any individual business. A retail store should be able to open in a retail zoned parcel, chain or indie. Same for a restaurant. If the chain is willing to meet the same site requirements as the indie, both should be permitted.

  21. TM says:

    Have any of these types of ordinances that ban chains been challenged? My feeling is that they would be declared unlawful as personal property rights tend to trump other concerns in this country. An exception of course would be if the entire area were operated by a single owner, say if Seattle owned Pike Place then they could decide who went in there, I’m not sure what the situation is there though.
    So perhaps if the prospect of too many chain restaurants in the Loop is ever deemed a “problem”, U. City itself could purchase a few buildings along Delmar and make sure they stay rented to local businesses, or some other investment group more concerned with culture than profits could do so. This type of approach might be more palatable to the community than trying to tell a patchwork of individual building owners who they can and can’t rent to.

  22. Tim says:

    In the RFT story they claim they don’t want to get any government involved with setting some sort of limit on who an owner can rent to. I hope that is the case because I know if I owned a building there I would be moving to sell quickly if I knew it’s value was about to be diminished by “do-gooders”. It was also noted in that story that there used to be a Dairy Queen in the Loop and lets not forget the Magic Market and Glaser Drug store. If there is no market for these chains they will close. The people will have spoken. But if not, if they thrive,and again, the people have spoken. Stasis is a bad thing, don’t be an enemy of the future.

  23. john says:

    You cannot expect some change and infiltration of chains on this street or in these great squares, especially given the power of the purse.
    Should multiple private businesses be allowed to restrict or regulate the type and style of newcomers? Of course not… if the property owners want more money today while potentially destroying the long term value, that is their choice. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. Keep it that way as it allows us to vote everyday in everyway. Only a single owner/mall can make these unilateral decisions and that is why they are so bland.

  24. As long as Cicero’s offers excellent German and Belgian beers, some which I cannot find anywhere else, the Loop will be my favorite destination. Sorry, but no City district can compete with the Loop. I always try to start my weekends there because it is so great.

    Chain restaurants do have increased capacity to drive out local competition, yet we must let the people decide what they want. Starbucks at Maryland Plaza is always below capacity while Coffee Cartel is super packed. I believe patrons will remain local to their local favorites even if a generic chain enters the market. If too many chains enter the area then people will go elsewhere. They would then close and local chains come back in. In reality, I do not think it going that far and I again cite Starbucks at Maryland Plaza. The people who shop in the Loop do so because it is unique. They will support those local stores more so than the chains.

  25. Alissa says:

    I’m surprised that nobody noted this, but the Tivoli is….wait for it….owned by a the Landmark Theaters chain.

    Not entirely related, but I feel as though DB is just being a curmudgeon regarding recorded music. Formats change, but albums (cd or vinyl) in hand are not “dead” and it will take a long time before anyone “gets over it”.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — OK, records (aka vinyl) are not just like 8-tracks — they have a niche following.  This is not to say people don’t enjoy them or even going through CDs, I certainly see music sections at chains like Target, Barnes & Noble, etc..  The point is the large size music-only store as a retail format is coming to an end in all but probably the biggest markets (NYC, say).  Smaller, niche music stores will spring up for fan of vinyl, indie rock, club music, etc..  Those stores will only need to much square footage.  Who knows, in 10 years we might see a merging of music stores, small performance venues and cafes.

    Great point on the Tivoli.  It is the architecture and product (film selection) that sets this apart from some generic multilplex.]

  26. JB says:

    Streetside, while it used to be a fairly local chain of stores in St. Louis and Columbia, was acquired by an out-of-town concern in 2000; its parent company went bankrupt in 2003 and is now owned by Trans World Entertainment, the same parent company that controls FYE, Sam Goody, and those other mall stores that we all love to hate. Good riddance.

    Let the Loop turn into chain hell. It’ll drive more business owners into making investments in depressed, yet up-and-coming, areas of the city where the rent’s cheaper.

  27. Adam says:

    wow, DB. no, actually instead of getting over it i’ll just keep buying CDs and records. i’m not so lazy yet that i can’t place a cd in a tray and hit a button. and better yet i don’t need to get over it because i can still very very easily go to the store and buy a CD or a record. probably not going to change any time soon. : )

  28. maurice says:

    Who knows, in 10 years we might see a merging of music stores, small performance venues and cafes.

    We are already there. Starbucks sells cd’s and books, Target hosts a Starbucks, and on and on and on. New trend: Walgreens having clinics. It is all about offering convience and quick, one-stop service to the customer so you can keep their dollars.

    But it would be interesting to see something like a Hartford coffee with a music store or a book store or something, all different owners but under the same roof.
    This may be the coming way small biz owners will be able to compete with the big boys.

  29. Travis Cape says:

    Yes, it’s true that the Tivoli is leased and operated by Landmark Theatres. The fact remains that it was local residents Joe and Linda Edwards that poured over two million dollars into the renovation that enables this theatre to entertain today. The Tivoli building was in a state of decline from the 1960’s until closing in 1994. I worked there then and still do. I am frankly suprised that we were able to be open in 1993-94.

    This is an issue of maintaining the “flavor of the loop, not being anti-chain. Face it, if the loop were to become less popular in the future, the chains would be the first to abandon their less profitable units, I mean stores. Yes, I wish both Church’s and Footlocker were gone. They were here first. Maybe someday there will be an attractive store to view from our box office.

  30. Jim Zavist says:

    and, equals42, “Where in the constitution does it grant protection to” small local stores? Sure, I like to support the “little guy”, but I also like to see success and hard work rewarded, as well. The role of government is to provide a level playing field, not protect mediocrity. If the small, local guys are good at what they do, they can compete with the big boys . . .

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Remember that government often unlevels the playing field by offereing tax breaks to the big boys (tif to build new store) while offering nothing to the smaller locally owned store.  Sometimes the small guy could use help to upgrade their storefront, buy new inventory managment equipment, etc…  Either they all get incentives or nobody should.   If we only give out selected incentives, it should be to locally owned businesses, not out of town business.]

  31. Adam says:

    and, jim, what you’re calling mediocrity may simply be a conscious decision to remain small and local, which does not preclude hard work or success. not every small business owner aspires to be starbucks.

  32. Jim Zavist says:

    Mediocrity is just that, not bad enough to scare away all customers, not good enough to compete well with a motivated newcomer/competitor. It has nothing to do with a “conscious decision to remain small and local”. (Trust me, I’ve been there and did that, successfuly, for 16 years.) Mediocrity comes from complacency incompetence and/or burnout. It can also come from a lack of competition, and when competetion increases (and customers actually have different and maybe better choices), life gets a lot harder.

    My point was that the biggest squaking about limiting competition seems to come from smallest operators. The reason Chipotle has grown from one store to a decent-sized chain in less than a decade is their focus on delivering a consistent, high-quality product at a fair price. That’s also probably why we’re now seeing Qdoba ads on the TV – they had a lock on that corner of the market, and Chipotle is a wak-up call for them.

    Is it “fair” to Qdoba, Tomatillo and Taco Bell for Chipotle to come to town? It all depends on your perspective. But I sure don’t think any city should be picking sides on this issue. Businesses succeed or fail by satisfying (or not) their customers. Period. End of sentence. Yeah, it sucks that you have to write a big check to open your doors the first time. And the odds are good that you won’t make it more than a year or two. That’s the brutal world of business these days. But as soon as you try and “protect” one that’s struggling, you’ve opened a huge can of worms – the line of hard-luck stories never ends (see the whole TIF mess for a larger-scale version of government trying to “help”!).

    I admit my perspective on both Chipotle and Noodles is different because I knew them when they only had 1-2-4-8 stores. They made some mistakes, struggled, learned and succeeded (although I had my doubts about Noodles). See http://www.westword.com/2004-06-10/news/a-chipotle-off-the-old-block/ for the whol Chipotle story, if you want. The flip side to trying control chains here is that some of our hometown businesses (Bread Co., Hardee’s and A-B, to name just three) are viewed as the out-of-town monsters in the rest of the country. What goes around comes around. And as operations as diverse as the Coffee Cartel, Tony’s and Fast Eddie’s Bon Aire continue to prove, you can be both small and local and successful!

  33. Adam says:

    jim, i’m just saying competing does not necessarily mean growing. if you’re a business owner and you’re content maintaining a modest but loyal customer base why is that mediocrity? obviously it depends on the owner’s definition of success. but i think an owner can indeed make a conscious decision to remain small provided, of course, that they can make enough money to stay in business. the two are not exclusive in my mind though. but then i’m not a business owner.

    anyway, as much as i hate homogenization i agree that’s it’s not a good idea to dictate limits on competition – at least not at this level – as long as the chain makes an effort to fit into the streetscape. hopefully myself and others will be able to keep meshuggas in business.

  34. Jim Zavist says:

    I totally agree that small does not equal unsuccessful. I had a one-man architectural firm for 16 years and I considered it to be successful. I wasn’t able to compete for every project out there (like larger firms), but in my niche, I was able to generate enough business to meet my definition of success. And small does not equal mediocre, nor does mediocre equal small. Being excellent at what you do will go a long way at insuring success. And you can very easily be both small and successful. There are many small businesses that can and do compete successfully with any chain, but there are also many small businesses that can’t.

    Where I have a problem is when a small, local company comes up with the idea that some entity like “the government” should protect them from competition (especially because they’re consituents and vote and have paid their taxes). In the world of coffee shops, Starbucks has kicked some major butt. Twenty years ago, when coffee became more than a generic beverage, you saw a lot of independents trying their hands at opening local coffee shops. The cost-of-entry was minimal (coffee machine, sink, stock, a few used chairs and tables in a rented storefront). Most of those are no longer around. While Starbucks has nationwide brand recognition, it also has a quality, consistent product and a motivated workforce. Where many of the local guys blew it were in the areas of consistency, cleanliness and speed. Plus, few people realize what 14-16 hour work days, six or seven days a week, actually mean to having a life outside of work. After six months or two years or whatever, the local guy just gets tired of the fight. Throw in a chain with the the resources to hire good people and enforce standards for consistency and quality, and it’s real easy to just throw in the towel.

    The “problem” is, yes, the chains are many times better at what they do. They’ve figured out how to be a successful business. Is it “unfair” that a local startup doesn’t have all these resources? Yes and no – they’re out there, you just have to figure out how to get them and to implement them. It takes both work and discipline. But if you’re not as good as “the chain” OR another local competitor, you’re not going to succeed (and you will lose your investment). The business world is darwinian. Only the best and the strongest succeed. But a chain is no guarantee of success. There’s a new chicken-wing chain in town that’s opened north of Forest Park. I tried them yesterday. I wasn’t impressed. Next time I want wings, I’ll be back at one of the many local places that do a much better job.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Agreed!  Well, not about the wings as I am a vegetarian.  Agreed on the topic of small & successful.  With restaurants I try to give them a month or so to get open before I give them a try thinking by then they’ve worked out any kinks.  If things still don’t work, they cannot expect to see me again.

    Another trick is to not compete with the big guy — offer something different.  Hartford Coffee, for example, doesn’t look or fee like a Starbucks and is always busy.  Starbucks, in fact, has had some failures like trying to expand the brand into the cafe business.  And yes, I have seen a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks — weird.] 

  35. Form not Use says:

    I believe a savvy business association will realize that a healthy mix of citywide or regional retail anchors and local boutique owners mitigates the danger of becoming too generic. Is there a “tipping point”? Sure, but I think it’s something more anecdotal and less quantifiable. If I had to make a guess, I’d say 30 regional anchor/70 locally owned is a healthy mix.

    But I think from this post as well as the sentiment made throughout the comments, that form-based code is something worth looking at. Shaping the public realm through the form of private buildings and leaving the uses as a secondary consideration.

    The Central West End has made a lot of headway with form-based code and I think perhaps the Loop business district, as it grows, could do well to invest in such planning efforts.

  36. studs lonigan says:

    The encroachment of chains in the Loop and in other similar districts historically characterized by local mom & pop outfits is at least partly a function of the rents demanded by landlords. The rebuilding, resurgence and ultimately eastward expansion of the Delmar Loop through the 1980s and ’90s were driven largely by business owners, who, either by choice or otherwise, had found themselves in an area that needed to reinvent itself. At the risk of oversimplifying a 30-year process, a perhaps unintended result of this slow, creative, organic process is a degree of stabilization, density and viability that attracts the notice of Ye Olde Chaynes. Moreover, when rents are in the $25+ per sq. ft. range, it becomes even more likely that high volume operators (like chains) can cut that mustard more readily than an individual operator who wants to sell pottery, art, or food.

    South Grand is far from the Loop, for better or worse, and not just geographically. Still, the same contentious process plays out: landlords (and many residents) want rents and values to escalate, so there is an ongoing push (or two-handed SHOVE) of rents to cover rising management/maintenance costs and taxes as well as maximize the landlord’s profit. Higher rents = more chains. Unfortunately, the higher commercial rents, like higher residential prices in adjoining neighborhoods, raise the expectations of newcomers. If they’re paying “Clayton prices”, whether renting or buying, whether commercial or residential, they may expect a “Clayton atmosphere”. They may be dismayed to not find it. Rather than stabilizing and enhancing, artificially inflated values can sometimes increase turnover and undermine the long term process of building a functional community.

  37. Jim Zavist says:

    Studs – interesting observations, but I disagree. One, higher rents do not directly equate to more chains. ANY business would rather pay less rent than more, chain or local. Chains grow because they’re successful. Being successful businesses, they’re likely in a better position to pay higher rents. This may disrupt the mellow vibe of a laid-back commericial strip, but that’s the way business works – only the best survive (chain or local) when the competition increases.

    Two, most people buy into an area because they like what they see today, not what it may become in the future. If anything, change is anathema to most residents, especially in “good” areas – see “NIMBY”. Change “landlords (and many residents)” to “property owners” and, yes, most do “want rents and values to escalate”- inevesting is abusiness to them. truthfully, about the only folks who aren’t in favor of higher rents are tenants – duh!

    So, bottom line, we’re stuck. On one hand, most landlords along our older commercial strips ARE “local mom & pop outfits”, a.k.a., “local businesses”. If they want to raise their rents, they’re somehow “bad”. On the other hand, we have other “local businesses”, who are tenants and paying rent, who can’t (or don’t want to) afford to pay higher rents. Are they somehow “superior”, and should be respected and rewarded for their tenacity and patience? Or should they be expected to “kick their game up a notch” and compete at a higher level?!

  38. studs lonigan says:

    Well, of course anyone or anything would *rather* pay lower rent, but I’ve yet to see St. Louis Bread or Starbucks pop up on Morgan Ford, though the rents are lower, compared to S. Grand, the CWE or the Loop. Chains bought into the Loop precisely because of “what they see today”, i.e., a viable, populous district sustained for decades largely by mom & pop outfits. They were not part of that renaissance, so called, but like what they see now enough to pay $25+ a square foot, which shoestring operators in less popular zones can’t begin to cover. Some landlords actively court chains precisely for that reason. They also believe that the interest and investment of large chains are a sort of fiscal validation for the district’s future.

    I’ve met a lot of residents in city neighborhoods over the years who bought the most expensive rehab done in decades amid absentee-owned properties in need of substantial work. In each case, they had reasoned, more or less, that they were buying into a neighborhood “on the way up” (and sometimes they were) and their expenditure would prove wise as all the dud places around them were rehabbed and upgraded. They found it tough to wait it out as urban pioneers with a $350k mortgage and hence became frustrated; being a pioneer with a $30k mortgage is easier to swallow. Were they stupid, or overly optimistic? Both? Search me. Only they know for sure. A common and sad result was that they would fly the coop after a couple of years, finally deciding they had made a mistake…they were tired of their license tags and plants getting boosted, tired of replacing their car windows, tired of drunks and hooks at the door scrounging change, tired of their kid getting rousted for his bike and tired of $350k as the price of that warfare.

    I don’t believe that everyone but tenants wants rents to go up. Professionals who work for affordable housing do not and planners who look at the longer term risks of an artificially inflated market do not. Plenty of residents of my own neighborhood decry “gentrification” and “loss of character” when small business is priced out by landlords wanting to goose rents to the moon. I love the strong property values and higher rents in my neighborhood, but I wish more of my friends could afford to live there. And given a choice between MoKaBe’s and a Starbuck’s, for me it’s MoKaBe’s hands down.

  39. Chris dB says:

    I’m a Loop local who lives at Skinker and Delmar and I hang in the Loop everyday and work at the independant farmer’s Market in the Market Square. I agree with whats been said, and I believe that it would be near impossible for the Loop to not have any chain stores. However, instead of going off on a tangent about chains and business I’m going to to focus on the matter at hand. I’m 18 and can not remember the time before Streetside nor the amazing graffiti wall on its west side. It saddens me to see Streetside move because despite its “chain” label it still had genuine character in both the employees and the atmosphere. Now the Loop will lose this one example of character to ANOTHER fast burrito stand and a noodles shop. I’ve had enough…we have Qdoba and El Maguey…whoever decided to move a Chipotle here is an idiot. IT IS NOT NEEDED! I don’t know mnuch about noodles…but I know for SURE that there are independant ethnic businesses in the Loop that would serve much better.
    Lastly, I love that graffiti wall. I can remember being 7ish and watching them paint it. Its been there for 10 years probably and its a full testament to the environment of the Loop: ART AND CULTURE! I fear that with the removal of streetside and with the entrance of two corporates that the wall will be painted over or taken down. What’s a better fit for the Loop? A blank wall or one covered with incredible art that until recently hadnt been changed in years? I pray it will not change, but if I know it will I will literally make a banner saying “SAVE OUR WALL” and drape it over the side of the building. Maybe we can start a petition. I dont know, I just would hate to see these businesses further remove character from the Loop.

  40. Erin F says:

    Yes, let’s get rid of the Church’s, the gas stations, the auto repair place, anything other than either overpriced boutiques and/or the same chains you’ll find in every other suburb in the US. Don’t get me wrong I /like/ some of those overpriced boutiques, but I don’t want a whole section of town with them. U-City has remained a fairly integrated area unlike many municipalities in the United States (and yes, part of that is because it is segregated by street, rather than by zip code). We should be able to have vibrant mixed-use, mixed-race, mixed-income communities – anytime you homogenize an area, whether through gentrification or ghettoification, it loses a large piece of what makes cities vibrant and exciting and liveable.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — I’m with you, I like completely diverse areas which does include a variety of establishments.  The big question is does this happen naturally and stay that way or must public policy be established to create and enforce this diversity?]

  41. Jim Zavist says:

    Anytime you get the government (or more correctly, a government employee) making design decisions, you’re headed down the road toward mediocrity. We all have our own preferences, what we like and dislike. And when you give one person the ability to steer design decisions over any one area, be it the Loop or a shopping mall or Chesterfield, you’re going to end up with a limited and bland design pallette. The Loop is what it is today precisely because of the vision of the private sector. It’s not what it was ten, twenty or fifty years ago, and it’s not what it’s going to be in ten, twenty or fifty years. Tenants come and go. Buildings are replaced. Do some of the changes suck? Yes! Others are a huge improvement. Personally, I’d vote for removing Qdoba and letting Chipotle in – I just like Chipotle’s food a lot more (and they’re both chains from Colorado). But to say the government should have that type of control scares me. There is no guarantee that you will succeed in business, but if you’re one of the best out there, the odds are good that you will!

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Yes, at best we need the government through the police power of zoning to say that in areas like the Loop that new construction will be built up to the street and not have blank walls but avoid legislating specific uses.]

  42. Shawn says:

    I’ve heard of areas where the city pays the stores rent so the area can keep the smaller stores that end up bringing more money and diversity than big box chains.


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