31 July 2007

Good Eats

I have been following with great interest the discussion over on Worbones’ recent post. In addition, I have been perusing Jesse Newburn’s dining blog HoCo Loco Girl blog. Jesse, you continue to be a fountain of creativity.

Anyway, I have been concerned about the prevalence of chains in our community, and would like to see a greater local entrepreneur presence. This yearning brings to mind two questions: Do entrepenuers want to do business in Columbia/Howard County? And, How can we facilitate local business people?

I believe the answer to first question is unequivocally, YES. Local business people have quite a bit of success here in Columbia. From Mrs. Z’s to JK’s Pub and on through Jessie Wongs, Hickory Grille, Frisco Grille and Cantina, and Sushi Sono (owned by a fellow Running Brook resident, YAY!).

But how to foster this spirit. A few months ago, I discussed the work being done in Clarendon, VA. One aspect of the development in Clarendon was the local governments effort to keep local businesses in play. The solution reached in Clarendon was to allow developers a couple of more floors in exchange for leasing to local businesses on the ground floor. I am unsure if this could work in Columbia, given the current round of alto-flu going around, but I have hope that we will all recover. In my opinion, forty feet of height is not a bad trade-off for local flavor. I also believe the opposite case, forty less feet of building and more TGI Tuesday-bees is a recipe for blah, blah, blah.

Going beyond the Clarendon model, I have found another idea that may be appealing to my fellow Howard County Zoning Wonks out there (isn’t it time we had a name to rally around?). A recent post on the Cool Town Studios blog “How can I keep chains out of my neighborhood?” recalls a movement to limit chains through zoning mechanisms. (In a quick aside, please check out the Cool Town Studios environment. There are lots of great articles on beta communities, triple bottom lines, cool towns, the creative class, and many other topics. It is truly a great, innovative place.) The zoning is known as Formula Business Restrictions.

There is also a link to the following website:

This website contains many examples of local communities that have employed Formula Business Restrictions. The City of Coronado, CA is a representative example.

This city of 24,000 in southern California has two zoning ordinances that limit formula businesses. A formula business is one that is required by contractual or other arrangement to maintain a standardized array of services or merchandise, and standardized architecture, uniforms, logos, decor, etc.
The Formula Restaurant Ordinance provides that the city shall allow no more than 10 formula restaurants. New formula restaurants must obtain a special use permit, may not locate on a corner, and must meet design standards.
In December 2000, Coronado adopted a Formula Retail Ordinance. The ordinance notes that the unregulated proliferation of formula retail stores would frustrate the city's goal of maintaining a unique and diverse retail base, and limit opportunities for small, local retailers. The ordinance requires that formula retail businesses obtain a special use permit from the city. Approval hinges on demonstrating that the store will contribute to an appropriate balance of local, regional, or national-based businesses and an appropriate balance of small, medium, and large-sized businesses. Formula businesses must be compatible with surrounding uses and occupy no more than 50 linear feet of street frontage.
A group of property owners challenged Coronado's formula retail ordinance shortly after it was enacted, but a California Appeals Court upheld the law in June 2003. In its decision, the court stated that the ordinance does not violate the US Constitution's commerce and equal protection clauses, and is a valid use of municipal authority under California state law.

Now, I am not advocating that Howard County just use the Coronado, CA ordinance verbatim. We should have a discussion, and find our own level of comfort when balancing small, medium, and large retailers and trying to find the right mix of local, regional, and national chains. In fact, if done right, this type of ordinance may help direct businesses toward our village centers.


Anonymous said...

In keeping with the artistic spirit Columbia was founded with, I'm hoping some of Town Center's redevelopment will also include spaces for galleries, studios and museums.

B. Santos said...

Anon 11:15,

To be sure, there should be some space set aside for galleries and studios. I may be naïve in this respect, but I am not aware of any parallel in the gallery/studio world. Are there national chains of art galleries? I also think we all need to talk about the mix of storefronts in downtown. Clearly all restaurants does not make sense. All art galleries and studios is equally nonsensical. What is the proper mix? How do we estimate the market for art? Do you find that when at galleries in other locations, you tend to run into a lot of people from Howard County? Are art galleries dominated by Columbian artisans that cannot find a place to show their work locally?

On a completely unrelated subject, don't forget to vote in the poll!

J. Newburn said...

Anony-mouse 8,497, are you offering to be the first person in line to leave a multi-million dollar bequest in your will to fund a downtown museum's establishment and its continued operations? Have you forgotten that we're smack dab in the middle of two really hot museum markets: DC and Baltimore? That we already have a handful of museums in Howard County? (Check the Howard County tourism website for info.) I've worked with a number of top-notch museum professionals and consultants, and I believe it would be folly to treat the establishment of a museum as "think it and it will come" phenomenon.

Hey, didjya know we already have a gallery in downtown (sic) Columbia? It's called, of all things, the Artists's Gallery. Lakeside Cafe (a locally owned place) does it's part by hanging local artists' work on their walls. That's a gallery, of sorts.

Have you thought about what "studio space" usually means ... logistically? L-O-T-S of space. Often with lots of stinky chemicals, noisy machines and such. I was down at Loads of Fun in Baltimore earlier this year and saw, to my surprise, a man I'd met in DC one evening. (He was very handsome and easy to remember, oh, and he was an architect and residential developer, by profession.) He told me he had rented studio space in Baltimore because it was the only space he could afford. The studio space in DC was hard to find and overpriced when found, so he hiked an hour or so to Baltimore to have a studio. What part of downtown Columbia would you have devoted to studio space then?

I do support, of course, the concept of aesthetics. And of public art. And I do believe there are creative ways to integrate an artistic experience and learning into environments that go beyond the somewhat stale and limited, imo, definitions of art spaces as galleries, studios and museums.

J. Newburn said...

Bill, Thanks for the shout-out with HocoLoco Girl. Personally, I'm not a fan of zoning regulations to limit chains. I am, however, a big fan of promoting local businesses; hence, the thinking and effort that went into HocoLoco Girl.

If people want to nurture their weak social ties within a community, *one* way to do that is to choose to eat at local restaurants. The likelihood of connecting with people inside a small space is much higher than in a larger space with a different (corporate brand) energy. Plus, there's just something nice and deeply human about being recognized by others in the setting that a smaller restaurant offers.

Just think about any house party you've been to: It's better to have a lot of people in a space that's a little bit too small ... rather than having too few people in a space that's a little too big. Connections and conversations happen when people rub shoulders, literally.

B. Santos said...


I completely agree with your comments regarding big and small establishments. However, I do not necessarily equate locally owned with small space. My concern is that an enormous opportunity is on the horizon, and I do not want to see locals shut out. This concern comes from watching the retail and commercial aspects of Columbia grow “organically.” The result has been at best a mixed bag. At some point in time the Oakland Ridge Industrial Park became the Oakland Ridge Business Park. I can clearly remember a time in my late teens when every Village Center had either a McDonalds or a Roy Rogers (and the Mall had both). Columbia residents have plenty of do’s and don’ts to live with, why not a few, just a few for the business community. Maybe that is how structure can fit in. Maybe rather than zoning, use some sort of downtown business covenants to provide rules regarding local ownership.

The zoning example cited in my post was merely to invoke thought. As I said, I do not think that it is directly applicable to Columbia. Ideally, I would like to see some combination of zoning and sunset clause. Provide opportunity, and let the locals thrive or whither. Also keep in mind the Cool Town Studios page reference provides other mechanisms to inject local ownership into downtown without using zoning.

Thanks again for HocoLoco Girl, it is a great tool for broadening our local dining experiences.

Last thing: Participate in my poll, please!