Beating Back the Banks

February 21, 2012
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One result of the agitation over the flood of banks displacing loved and needed businesses has been to point out how Boston could do more to provide the best environment for small, local business success.

We know a lot about how small businesses succeed in a city and it has little to do with parking, large footprints, national reach or good traffic flow.

Instead, we know that the more doorways to a variety of businesses in a block, the happier shoppers are. We know that businesses on commercial streets with many doorways on each side are more successful than those on streets where shops are located on only one side of a street. We know that patrons on foot typically spend more than shoppers coming by cars. We know that clever, unique small businesses will do better in an Internet world than the national chains. We know that neighborhood shops need shoppers who are tourists and nearby workers, not just residents, to succeed. According to retail consultants, certain ground floor uses—restaurants, groceries, card shops, gift shops, toy shops, clothing shops, hardware stores, drug stores and even dry cleaners—draw crowds and banks and real estate and insurance offices don’t. And “nothing draws a crowd like a crowd,” as P.T. Barnum once said.

So how do we keep drawing crowds? Especially, how do we keep drawing crowds to our neighborhood business districts, which are vital to our quality of life and to our city’s economic success? How do we enrich our home-grown businesses rather than line the pockets of national chains?

We can learn from the success of other cities.

Other places have limited the size of businesses and the length of their storefronts. They have made banks and offices a conditional use or limited their numbers along a street. And most effectively, they say, they have imposed “formula business restrictions” to make sure their districts have an abundance of local businesses, which, coincidentally reduces the threat of banks.

The first two tactics are often deployed together, and they are sometimes wrapped up in the third tactic, which is by far the most popular. The term “formula business” essentially means a chain store, franchise, bank or office with multiple locations.

Places as diverse as San Francisco, Nantucket, and Fredericksburg, Texas, have used such a restriction. You can read all about this tool at http://www.newrules.org/retail/rules/formula-business-restrictions.

Meanwhile, you might like to know how a local town, Concord Massachusetts, has applied formula business restrictions. A 2011 zoning amendment limits the number of formula businesses to 10 within the West Concord Business and Village Districts. Any such business, even if there are fewer than 10, requires a special permit. The zoning amendment’s purpose would seem to apply to most Boston neighborhood business districts. “The purpose . . . is to maintain the unique, small-scale, small-town character and quality of life . . . by preserving the individuality and distinctive appeal of the . . . districts” says the amendment. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

It gives the town the means to promote a diversity of uses and to oversee a landlord’s decision that might or might not benefit the town. Marcia Rasmussen, director of planning for the town, said the town did not impose the same zoning on Concord Center because all but one of the buildings is locally owned, and landlords agreed that chains, and in particular, a Citi-Bank, were a detriment to their property values.

I asked Randi Lathrop, deputy director for community planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, about such zoning for Boston. She said several things of interest.

She disagreed with me and the retail analysts and consultants I have interviewed about banks. She maintained that they do create vitality in a neighborhood. She said putting them on the second floor creates problems in handicap access. She said some neighborhoods need banks. I agreed that some neighborhoods need banks. But downtown Boston neighborhoods are not those neighborhoods.

She did not seem familiar with formula business restrictions, and it apparently has not been applied in Boston anywhere.

Lathrop said such zoning suggestions would have to come from a neighborhood with strong support on both residents and businesses. So, neighborhoods, if you want to maintain “the unique, small-scale, small town character” that Concord so aptly describes, you need to get familiar with such zoning and urge it on the BRA.

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