by Diane Fiske
Last month, a button fell off my jacket and I went to Germantown Avenue to buy thread. The problem was there is now no place in Chestnut Hill to buy thread. The fabric store is gone. I gave up and ended up buying thread in Center City.
Then I started thinking about other stores that are now missing from Chestnut Hill, such as the Camera Shop, the Bootery, Borders, the Gap, Talbots and WaWa. I understand there were a lot more in decades past.
Remaining among the survivors are seven banks. several manicure parlors and any number of antique stores, boutiques and dry cleaners.
Why, do these survive, and why are there 18 empty stores on Germantown Avenue where services have vacated Chestnut Hill?
I asked three architects and planners in the community what they think is happening in the community. They all expressed faith that the market will decide what remains of the manicure parlors, banks, high-end stores and antique shops or other choices.
Lawrence D. McEwen, an architect and rotating chairman of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee, said part of the problem stems from the history of Chestnut Hill as a home for wealthy families on the west side of Germantown Avenue who employed many servants
“Historically, the servants would walk to the grocery stores, the butcher store and other places and buy things for their employers,” McEwen said. “This is no longer true.
“It isn’t that there is no longer a need for the small service jobs, it is just there is less density and less demand. Most families have two working members and they spend less time shopping for essentials and do some of their shopping in malls or in other areas.”
He added another reason for the empty stores is that many of the small shopkeepers have reached retirement age and others cannot afford the high rent. Most recently, some of the small stores have been replaced by “high end” boutique stores that would be able to afford to stay if they are successful in attracting customers.
“It will be up to the marketplace to see if they survive,” he said.
McEwen said he will particularly miss the recently vacated camera store, which was competing with online suppliers.
“A lot of his customers started buying their camera equipment online,” he said of the camera store’s owner, Frank Garber, who closed his shop last month and said he was not making enough profit. The Chestnut Hill Camera Shop had existed in Chestnut Hill for decades.
Urban planner John Landis, who came to Philadelphia from California to head the University of Pennsylvania’s City and Regional Planning Department, is now a Chestnut Hill resident and also a member of the LUPZ.
He said the commercial area of Chestnut Hill, along Germantown Avenue, is “too long.” He feels few people will travel its length to shop.
Landis said he felt that the new One West Building with its Fresh Market store does a good job of cutting the Avenue in half. He feels it will inspire more customers to come to Chestnut Hill.
One of the reasons Landis said that many of the small stores are empty and devoid of national clothing chains is that these chains, the Gaps and Urban Outfitters, want wide store fronts with more glassy views of their items for sale.
Jeffrey Krieger, an architect and planner in Chestnut Hill, feels the new One West building with its condominiums will be good for Chestnut Hill.
“Anything that provides eyes and ears on the Avenue is good,” he said. “One of the things that provided the original vibrant community was shopkeepers who lived above their stores. Now those apartments are rented by people who live here and that is good.”
Krieger noted that public sentiment has changed.
“A few years ago, there were attempts to create an ordinance for some kind of barriers, keeping out the national chains because it was thought they disturbed the mom and pop shops,” he said. “The legislation never went through and they left on their own and now are located mainly in large malls.”
But Krieger feels Chestnut Hill has two attractions that won’t go away.
“Two of the big attractions here that I hear time again from our clients is that a walkable community and Fairmount Park are important,” he said. “People want to be able to walk to shops and they like the fact that Fairmount Park is accessible.”
But, Krieger added, the local residents cannot provide enough purchasing power to keep local businesses alive, and for that Chestnut Hill needs to attract people from other areas.
“We have a lot of desirable things here, and we need to market the area more,” he said.
The three design professionals agreed that there is something special about the individual attention they receive in small stores where they are known to the shop owners.
Diane Fiske is a Chestnut Hill Resident and freelance reporter specializing in architecture. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Business Journal, Philadelphia Magazine and The New York Times.