Op-Ed: Does Mt. Airy Need a Little More Developmental Drama?
Debating whether a controversy over a proposed new business might be good for the community.
Mt. Airy is, for better or for worse, sandwiched between two dramas.
When Pat Burns talked about putting a Save-a-Lot and a Dollar Tree in Chelten Plaza in Germantown earlier this year, he was met with an ire that continues to persist throughout zoning hearings and community group meetings. Neighbors generally seemed to feel like they didn’t want another dollar store in their community, but it looks like it’s probably going to go in to the newly revitalized shopping area, even as many continue to object.
News that a new Wired Beans Cafe would also inhabit a space inside the plaza did assuage some of the anger activists had directed at Burns, but they’re continuing to fight aspect of the developer’s plan. They’re clearly not entirely happy with the way things worked out.
Chestnut Hill, meanwhile, is experiencing its very own neighborhood kerfuffle. Richard Snowden’s plan to bring a condominium and retail development to the 8200 block of Germantown Avenue—complete with a large parking lot—has, in a sense, divided the community. Some favor the grocery store plan, saying it will draw people into the business corridor to shop there and at other local businesses nearby, while others, like supporters of a relatively newly opened Weavers Way (the co-op branch opened in 2010), say it will create an unwanted large-scale development in an area where smaller establishments are the norm and believe it will hurt the other food purveyors nearby, like the co-op and the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market.
Mt. Airy, meanwhile, has generally stayed away from longstanding dramas of this sort in the past year or so. Sure, there was tension recently over an art expo that unexpectedly closed down the 7100 block of Germantown Avenue during a prime fall shopping weekend, and community leaders are still dealing with the fallout associated with that. But that issue is more about a one-time event that, for the most part, isn’t affecting the community right now. The Germantown and Chestnut Hill issues, meanwhile, could—and probably will—have long-standing effects on those neighborhoods for years to come.
Neighborhood leaders in Mt. Airy often marvel at how the community is very good at coming together on a variety of different matters. That’s true, for the most part, and it sort of speaks to why there often seems to be less overt drama here than in other places. (Go to a Chestnut Hill Community Association meeting, then head to an East Mt. Airy or West Mt. Airy Neighbors gathering, and you’ll quickly see that’s the case.)
But there’s a slower-moving, definitely pernicious drama of other sort being played out in Mt. Airy’s business corridor right now, and if you’ve simply walked up and down Germantown Avenue for the past year on a semi-regular basis, you’ve seen it. That’s the fact that small businesses and galleries appear to be closing at an alarming rate.
Johnson’s Barber Shop. Jean-Jacques Gallery. One Salon & Boutique. Blackbone Gallery. Little Herban Spa. Artista. Past & Present. Dirty Girl Brigade. Black Olive Restaurant (whose owners were charged with stealing federal money to run the establishment) and Black Pearl Restaurant (which isn’t closed for good, according to its owner, but is temporarily shut down because it’s not up to code). All of those businesses have something in common—they’re on either the 7100 or 7200 block of Germantown Avenue, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that doing business right now in a place of prime real estate in Mt. Airy isn’t easy.
Let’s be fair—a number of businesses have also opened recently there. A dog grooming spot is now welcoming customers, as is BellaNOR Boutique. But it seems to be overwhelmingly true that’s it’s harder to open up shop here than it once was.
You can say what you want about the Germantown and Chestnut Hill proposals. There’s no question they’re problematic, and the jury’s still out, obviously, on whether they’ll be good for the community. But at the very least, they’re attempts to bring new, established businesses to spots that have certainly been hit by the recession.
And maybe that’s something Mt. Airy needs. If a larger, well-known store or restaurant with name recognition—like Iron Hill Brewery, for example, which has locations throughout the region and will open a new one in Chestnut Hill in the next few months—managed to move into this neighborhood, I’m sure there would be some opposition. Mt. Airy’s all about grassroots innovation and the little guy; I can imagine people saying it doesn’t need a chain store or similar business. But I think it would be a great thing if something like that brought in people from outside the neighborhood and kept them shopping at other local businesses while they were here. After talking to Mt. Airy business owners, I'm even more convinced.
You could call that the Night Market effect—when the Food Trust’s now-famous evening bazaar came to Mt. Airy in August, businesses and restaurants were packed with people who hadn’t generally been frequenting the neighborhood. I think a business with name recognition could have a similar—if less dramatic—impact.
We can all be thankful that we don’t have major disagreement within the community over large-scale developments like our neighbors do. But if a little drama goes a long way toward making sure that the Germantown Avenue business district remains viable, then a tad more tension might be something we need.