Retail jingoism: a pedestrian’s perspective
By Christian McNeil
The debate over Portland’s chain-store ordinance, which severely restricts chain businesses from opening downtown, is becoming more and more acrimonious, with allegations of gag orders in City Hall [see “City staff gagged over formula business limits“], petition campaigns to repeal the ordinance, closures of Maine-owned businesses on Congress Street, and threats of divestment from downtown building owners and developers.
Plenty of people have already argued that the ordinance was poorly conceived and worded, more the result of a knee-jerk reaction to some city councilors’ distaste for a certain chain restaurant than of reasoned and informed problem-solving.
Now that the ordinance is in effect, though, we’re beginning to see some of the ways it will affect our cityscape and the ways we live in it.
This new ordinance effectively diminishes demand for retail space, since landlords have a smaller pool of tenants to whom they can sell their storefronts. Since supply is fixed in the short term, the immediate effect, as we’re already beginning to see, will be some combination of reduced rents and increased vacancy.
Proponents of local businesses might see all of this as a good thing, since lower rents might invite more local entrepreneurs to start new businesses. But in the longer term, building owners might convert retail space to other uses, like offices or parking, if retail leases aren’t sufficiently lucrative.
So eventually, our streetside storefronts will either have higher rates of vacancy or get converted to non-retail uses. Either way, downtown’s pedestrian environment will suffer. Active retail uses generate foot traffic on the street, which is why so many downtowns – Portland’s included – require retail space on the ground level of new buildings.
Retail spaces, chain or otherwise, contribute to the streetscape in hundreds of ways. They are more interesting visually, more inviting as quasi-public spaces, and more attractive as pedestrian destinations than shuttered storefronts, parking garages, and cubicles. (The new Portland Harbor Hotel in the Old Port, which greets the street with the blank walls of its parking garage, is a good example of an inhospitable building façade.) Unless locally-owned businesses generate much more foot traffic than chains, we’ll soon have fewer pedestrians on Portland’s streets.
To be sure, there are instances when independent businesses do, in fact, generate more pedestrian traffic than chains would. Every time a cruise ship arrives in town, for example, throngs of tourists loiter and empty their wallets on Exchange Street, and few of them spend much time in the Dunkin Donuts around the corner.
But those are tourists, not Portlanders. At this time of year, when most of the people in Portland are people who live and work here, the busiest place on Exchange Street is the Starbucks on the corner. I can’t remember the last time I was in a Starbucks, but I’m a lot more likely to shell out $5 for coffee while listening to Norah Jones than I am to purchase any novelty license plate or precious bit of jewelry from the other shops on Exchange.
Few people really need espresso. But tube socks, boxes of pencils, and batteries do come in handy, and the only place to get these and dozens of other useful things is at the chain drugstores on Congress Street. It’s hard to imagine any independently-owned pharmacy, which are generally run by actual pharmacists, investing the time and effort required to carry the broad array of inexpensive items that Rite Aid or CVS has. Without these and other chains downtown, Portland workers and residents would have fewer reasons to walk down Congress Street, and fewer chances to stop by the locally-owned stores along the way.
As chain stores leave and pedestrian traffic declines, then, the new ordinance will end up hurting a lot of local businesses more than it helps.
The ramifications are even more serious for developing neighborhoods like Bayside, where there hasn’t been significant pedestrian traffic for years. Most of the businesses to invest in Bayside’s early development are chains: Gorham Savings Bank, Hollywood Video, Wild Oats, EMS, Whole Foods. Without chain stores to act as pioneer species in this new retail ecosystem, Bayside will never accumulate the critical mass of pedestrian destinations that a walkable neighborhood needs. It’s telling that the Bayside Neighborhood Association, a fairly progressive bunch, has opposed the formula business ordinance all along.
Ultimately, the threat that this ordinance poses to Portland’s built environment becomes a threat to Maine’s natural environment. Right now, we have the most walkable downtown in northern New England, a place where thousands of residents and workers can run a broad array of errands on foot. Walking makes us healthier and happier, and it doesn’t require that we widen roads or burn petrochemicals. Our multi-story mixed-use buildings are much more energy efficient than suburban strip centers, even when they’re old and drafty.
But if the new ordinance succeeds to the point where downtown offers little more than gourmet food and used books, then more people will drive to the energy-sucking big boxes on Portland’s fringes in order to buy the things they actually need. Our downtown could begin to look a lot more like any other seaside tourist town that panders to tourists with cute shoppes. So much for keeping Portland real.
Christian McNeil is a freelance writer, economist, and urban naturalist. He lives in the West End and maintains a blog at www.vigorousnorth.blogspot.com.