by Kathie Meadows and Philip Dawson
The Streetscape article by Diane Fiske in the Aug. 1 edition of the Local scratched the surface of the topic of Chestnut Hill’s retail trends but gave credence to some unsubstantiated claims without examining the most notable achievements of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District’s business development strategy.
Just last week, the City of Philadelphia’s Director of Commerce Harold Epps visited Chestnut Hill for a roundtable with local business leaders and a tour of the Germantown Avenue commercial corridor.
While the discussion explored both the strengths and weaknesses of the District, Epps led off with an impressive and encouraging statistic: “Chestnut Hill currently has the lowest commercial vacancy rate of any commercial corridor in Philadelphia.”
It’s worth taking a look back at how we arrived at this point.
The Chestnut Hill experience is about the urban village feel and its unique offerings. There have been many iterations over the years, as the retail landscape changes. The ’80s are long gone, and while Chestnut Hill is rich in history and an appreciation for the many great businesses that have been here over time, we need to embrace new ways to do business. We are fortunate to have 229 unique businesses within our neighborhood commercial district, and we are proud to have added 35 new businesses to our retail mix in the past five years through targeted recruitment.
We have had to say goodbye to beloved businesses like the Chestnut Hill Pharmacy and Chestnut Hill Camera Shop, but we have many businesses that have stood the test of time and have been here over 50 years: McNally’s, Robertson’s and Kilian Hardware, to name a few. Galleries, antique shops, spas and hair salons combined with desirable retail and restaurants are an integral part of our retail mix, and that of any successful business community.
The reason we no longer have Talbots, Gap and Chicos is our proximity to Walnut Street, Suburban Square and the King of Prussia Mall. To return to that model here is not practical, as the retailers in those locations are already experiencing over-saturation with their existing customer. We have found over the years that we do best with local or regional retail that offers a personal experience over large national chains.
One of the many observations gleaned through the District’s Retail Recruitment Program is that there is no other business community quite like Chestnut Hill. Where else can you find fantastic retail offerings and world class restaurants intermingled with such fine cultural institutions like Stagecrafters, Woodmere Art Gallery and Morris Arboretum?
Last week’s article reported an anonymous complaint about a lack of pedestrian foot traffic and the concern that “banks are the only ones who can afford to keep their offices here.” Banks and real estate offices are expectedly well-represented on the Hill given the area’s economic data, but these categories also include some of our business community’s largest supporters, such as George Woodward Company, Elfant Wissahickon Realtors and Bowman Properties, who offer sponsorship of the special events and festivals which increase pedestrian traffic and exposure in our business corridor.
While Chestnut Hill has both busy and slow seasons in the way most downtowns do, its occupancy rate, new developments and third-party studies are testaments to a healthy retail district. A 2017 report by the well-regarded firm Econsult found that the neighborhood receives over 300,000 visitors every year. It’s no surprise, then, to see ongoing development such as the expanding Chestnut Hill Brewing Company’s “Taproom” or the beautiful, multi-use property at 8100 Germantown Ave. reported in the Local earlier this summer.
In the past three weeks, letters of intent have been submitted for three more vacancies: two retail uses and one food use. In fact, our vacancy has decreased significantly from 18% in 2014 to just 8% now. Less vacancy and more quality retail and restaurants is always the goal. And new quality businesses ultimately bring more customers, not just more competition.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” and consumers won’t come to shop in one high end store, or dine in only their favorite restaurant. A destination town is one that creates an unforgettable experience with many diverse options. Chestnut Hill’s historic commercial area and unique mix of small shops and restaurants constitute its competitive advantage, and while we don’t make any predictions about future economic trends, as last week’s article speculated, we know that these attributes bode well for the continued prosperity of this district.
Kathie Meadows is the Director of the Chestnut Hill Business Development. Philip Dawson is the Executive Director of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District and CHBA.