Will the Chestnut Hill retail plan work?

 Running an independent business is never easy. But with the effects of the national recession still lingering, it’s become even harder. In the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, a number of storefronts have gone dark with other businesses hoping the Avenue can maintain its standing as one of most attractive upscale shopping corridors in the region.

That’s why it wasn’t a big surprise that business operators there, interviewed by NewsWorks, were largely supportive of a new retail plan geared toward bringing new tenants and more foot traffic to the community’s business district along Germantown Avenue.

They particularly like the plan’s recommendation that stores keep later hours to create a more competitive and vibrant commercial corridor. This is a touchy issue among business owners who don’t want to be told when they can go home. The Chestnut Hill Business Association, though, has no plans to mandate evening hours.

But they also had some suggestions of their own. Below of are four reactions to the plan’s recommendations. (download the retail report)

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Background on the Plan

The Chestnut Hill Community Association, Business Improvement District, Business Association and Parking Fund commissioned the study. It was conducted by the retail consulting firm Downtown Works for $75.000. The company is headed by former Hill resident Midge McCauley. The retail plan advocates for more dining options and more apparel stores and less services and home and gift sores.

To make these suggestions a reality, the Business Improvement District hired current Hill resident Eileen Reilly. It’s her job to strategically recruit businesses to set up shop in Chestnut Hill.


bergman_300Glenn Bergman

General Manager of Weavers Way Co-op

8424 Germantown Ave.

Although Weavers Way has only been open in Chestnut Hill since May, it’s already apparent to Bergman that the avenue would benefit if stores stayed open longer.

Chestnut Hill, he said, is an area tailor-made for walking and shopping.

“But during the week, most stores on the avenue close by 5 or 6 o’clock, just when people are coming home from work or want to go out,” he said.

If more businesses stayed open late, as the study suggests, there would be more foot-traffic and the potential for more money to be made by store-owners, Bergman said.

Weavers Way’s Chestnut Hill location does about 30 percent of its daily sales during the week between 5:30 and 8:00 p.m. when it closes, he said.

Combining later store hours with more restaurants, he added, would help make the area a real destination that’s successful for businesses and the local community.

To help fill the vacant storefronts, Bergman said rents need to be lower, a departure from the study. He said he knows people are interested in renting in Chestnut Hill, but can’t afford the asking price.

“As retail dollars ramp up, maybe rents do go up,” Bergman said. “But to help people get in and get started I think it would be very helpful.”


howe_300Lisa Howe and Georgia Doyle

Co-owners of Artisans on the Avenue

8440 Germantown Avenue

Co-owners and long-time Chestnut Hill residents Howe and Doyle said the area’s commercial corridor is no worse off than any other shopping district. The vacancies, Doyle said, are a sign of the economy, but also the natural ebb and flow of a business district.

Still, they agreed that Germantown Avenue needs some help and think the study’s suggestions are a good start. Like Bergman, Howe stressed the need for stores to stay open later, even if it is only one or two nights a week. She said her clothing shop – which opened in 2001 – and others could increase their profits as a result.

“The business will come if everyone is open,” said Howe. “But who wants to come if only a few stores are open? It needs to be like New Hope.”

The two would also welcome more apparel stores. Howe explained that having a similar type of store nearby, even next door, would help her business. But most of all, they said having a retail recruiter to implement the improvement process will really help turn things around. “We can’t sit just back and wait for them to come to us,” said Howe. “There are plenty of other places for them to go like Haddonfield or Moorestown.”


Edelman_300Amy Edelman

Co-owner of The Night Kitchen Bakery with husband John Millard

7725 Germantown Avenue

Edelman has seen the suggestions from Downtown Works before. About two years ago, she said, the business association hired an urban planning firm to do a similar study. And while the newest edition is a bit flashier, the contents are still largely common sense and continue to focus on the top half of the Hill.

“Even though the business association represents us all the way down to Cresheim Valley Drive, it really focuses on north of Willow Grove Avenue,” said Edelman, who bought the 30-year-old business a decade ago.

The emphasis is understandable, said Edelman, whose business at the bottom of the Hill hasn’t struggled, but expanded. There’s simply a higher concentration of businesses at the top, she explained.

The East Mt. Airy native said there should be more businesses that can attract some of the city’s tourism dollars to Chestnut Hill, such as restaurants and apparel stores, and fewer stores that don’t promote repeated visits, such as gift shops.

But she said it’s unfair to ask current store-owners to spruce up aesthetics during a down economy. “You’re going to tell shopkeepers who are barely making enough money to survive and pay their rent that they have to spend $5,000 on a new awning? I assume if they could actually afford it, they would do it.”


vanessa_300Vanessa Mullen

Co-owner of Campbell’s Place with Rob Mullen

8337 Germantown Avenue

Mullen said the retail strategy is a situation of the cart before the horse. While she doesn’t completely disagree with the study’s findings, the tavern owner said the community needs to be a unified and welcoming place before an outside retailer would want to rent there, and that right now, it’s not.

Mullen said many community residents are resistant to change, even when that change means adding a new business that would fill a long-standing vacancy. She said that this shortsightedness will hurt the community in the long-term.

“Pretty soon, if you drive all the business out, your property values are going to go down, and you’re property taxes are going to go up, because business isn’t being generated to make it economically,” said Mullen, a Chestnut Hill native.

She does like the idea of having a retail recruiter, but said that there needs to be a big marketing and public relations push to support Reilly’s work so that retailers and restaurants know what’s positive about Chestnut Hill.

She said there’s been a lot negative publicity lately surrounding the shopping district, including a lawsuit involving residents and a proposed dialysis center. “We’re making headlines outside of the community,” said Mullen. “It’s not the kind of headlines you want.


Action on the Avenue

The Chestnut Hill community has seen a few new businesses appear on the Avenue: Hob Nob, 7916 Germantown Ave; Chestnut Hill Pharmacy, 8030 Germantown Ave; Elfant Wissahickon Realtors, 8039 Germantown Ave; Empirical Point, Kevin O’Brien Studio temporary location, 8428 Germantown Ave: Oxford Circus Toys, 8127 Germantown Ave.

Arriving in 2011: Posh, a salon, and Thai-Kuu, Thai-fusion restaurant.


(Special thanks to Kimberly Paynter for producing Aaron’s video)


Related links:

Chestnut Hill Business Association

Video of Downtown Works presentation

Interesting discussion on CH retail scene on PhiladelphiaSpeaks



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