Our City and County leadership needs to embrace a strategy to foster the development SMALL retail.
Our local officials seem to always be wanting to attract the Moby Dick's of businesses to our area at the expense of identifying what the bottlenecks are for fostering the growth of small business; and then opening those bottlenecks to create the walkable neighborhoods we all want to live in!
Other cities have a vibrant and eclectic mix of small retail in their retail corridors. This creates many options for city residents and having several 750 to 1500 square foot retailers creates a critical mass that brings people near and far. People like options and having 8 to 10 retailers in a walkable area is better than having one 9000 square foot Morton’s, let’s say. The truth is, I would never go to a Mortons, and I never did since it opened back in 2017. Well I lied, I did go to Morton’s. I went there. Looked at the menu and the prices at the bar, politely put the menu down and walked to Aunt Rosie’s instead. My wife and I never looked back.
But if we had a small steak house, a regional Italian restaurant, a sushi joint, a craft cocktail bar, a dive bar, a greasy spoon, and Mediterranean street food place, and a vegan spot… that’s what is going to motivate us to walk the 15 minutes to that area.
So why don’t we have plenty of these epicurean hubs in Rochester? There are two short answers: 1.) lack of economic capacity (poverty) and 2.) The onerous building and zoning code regime we have in our city and state. In this essay, I will go into expanding on the latter, and offer up some recommendations to policy makers on what they can do to create fertile soil for the vibrant & bustling retail corridors we all wish to see in our community.
I have been in real estate brokerage, management, and development for 14 years. 95% of my focus has been in the City Of Rochester. One of my biggest frustrations of working in this municipality is in the leasing of small retail spaces. Let me run a real life scenario for you…
I own a mixed use building on the corner of Monroe and Meigs in the Pearl Meigs Monroe neighborhood. I had a nail salon that I inherited as a tenant. It is a space that is a little under 700 square feet. The nail salon was month-to-month so I gave them notice to vacate and they left. I wanted to get a food or beverage retail operator in there so that my residential tenants in the area would have a space to get food or drink, hang out and build community.
It took me a year of offering 6 months free rent in order land a lease with an operator that was willing to take this project on. Why did it take so long? It wasn’t for lack of interest to be clear. I had hundreds of inquiries from great start up businesses and existing businesses who were very excited about the space. When we would get to the point of getting serious, they would check with the city about what they would have to do in order to locate their business at my building. This was the point at which the prospect would disappear into the ether, never to be heard from again!
So what happened? Well, when they would go to the city, zoning would tell them they would need an alternative parking plan; a public hearing for this, a public hearing for that. If they were able to get through all of that, they would also need to talk to building code. If they had a certain occupancy above X amount of people, they would need a public bathroom, and a public bathroom that had a wheel chair accessible 5 foot turn radius. If they had an occupancy above Y, which is not very many people, they would need to put in two bathrooms. If that took up too much space in their 700 square foot bar/eatery then, guess what, you would need to have another hearing!
It is intimidating enough as it is opening a new business. When they build up enough courage to draft a business plan, save up enough money to pull the trigger and actually find a space, the City throws the book at them and really offers no support system for helping them navigate this system, that is, without forcing them to spend thousands of dollars on architects and engineers. I have seen this policy regime stamp out many potential small businesses from sprouting up in our community.
The City Of Rochester’s 2034 Comprehensive Plan is helpful and does attempt to address some of the outdated zoning red tape, but I do not think it goes far enough. So what’s the solution? I have a couple suggestions:
1.) Create a full-time position in City Hall which will serve as a small business creation advocate. This person will serve as a point of contact who will “connect the dots” for local entrepreneurs trying to navigate the zoning and building code system. This person will be an expert on all things building and zoning and be able to identify back doors and efficiencies for proper space planning. They will also be able to provide architectural services and space planning free of charge. If there is no other option besides having a hearing for a building code or zoning variance, this person will be able to work hand in glove with the entrepreneur in preparing the application and the supporting documentation needed to have a successful hearing.
2.) Expand the $8000 50/50 match grant program that is administered by the City’s Office Of Business and Neighborhood Development. To not only have a match grant for furniture fixtures and equipment, but for build out costs as well. If a prospective tenant is looking to change a bodega, liquor store, or nail salon into a higher impact retail use, such as a small bar, restaurant, or coffee shop, it is very hard to try and convince a landlord in putting a substantial amount of capital into this prospective tenant’s build out. The main reason is that restaurants and the like have one of the highest percentages of failure out of any business. So landlords pass on financing these types of build outs because of that risk.
This is just two recommendations; what are your ideas on fostering more smaller retail?