University City Landlord/Broker Melani Lamond Speaks Out About NIMBYs

Dunkin Donuts is prepping a space in University City, and some neighbors aren’t happy about a chain restaurant moving into the space. Though this particular franchise opening seems to be a fait accompli at this point, the debate over a chain’s suitability in a neighborhood of independent businesses will surface again and again. (The last conflict of this kind arose over a Subway sandwich shop on Baltimore Avenue.)

Urban & Bye’s associate broker Melani Lamond, a prominent figure in the University City real estate community and owner of the Gold Standard Cafe’s building, among others, gets frustrated by the notion that a commercial property should be limited to a certain type. On a neighborhood listserv where residents can share their frustration or support for such projects, Lamond offered a “landlord’s perspective,” in which she further expanded on this point of view. She allowed us to reproduce the piece she wrote, which raises some very interesting points. (She begins by responding to specific charges made by others, including worries about traffic and urban location, which is why it seems to start in media res.)

I don’t think anyone will be able to “drive through” the storage facility and “idle their cars” while awaiting donuts at 41st & Chester! It’s not that kind of space. Dunkin Donuts also has CITY layouts – including 34th & Walnut, 30th St. Station, many center city stores, and even a shop in the Reading Terminal Market, according to their web site. If all of those places can accept Dunkin Donuts, why not 41st & Chester?

I don’t buy donuts and I’m not involved in whatever discussions are taking place about the use of this space, but I want to share a landlord perspective. I’m not talking about the landlord is at 41st & Chester; I don’t know who owns the building. I mean that I want to share the perspective of ANY landlord, myself included.

As a landlord, I bristle at being told what tenants I or another landlord “should” not have, in a commercial building appropriately zoned for their use, when the prospective tenant is a viable, legal business – especially one with a good track record. I bristle at the neighbors’ concerns which they call “quality of life,” which in our neighborhood have often included the thinking that businesses should not ever bring people with cars (although we neighbors are allowed to have cars), should not be open evenings and weekends to “disturb” us, should not be visible from the street, should not have sidewalk seating for us to have to walk around, and should not be types of businesses which some nearby individual doesn’t personally approve of.

I’ve seen this keep out a restaurant, a vegetable market, a tattoo studio, and an ice cream parlor at 46th & Baltimore. There was immense objection to the Subway store in that location. Years earlier, getting permission for Dock St. Brewery to locate at 50th & Baltimore took a huge amount of effort. There have been many more businesses we’ve lost, some just because they didn’t want to subject themselves to the neighbors’ outspoken disapproval.

Don’t neighbors realize that when one chooses to live up-close to a commercial corridor or building, one must expect commercial activity to take place there? Don’t they realize that the owners of commercial buildings have mortgages and expenses to pay, and can’t simply leave their properties empty?

I’m the owner of 4800 Baltimore, landlord to the Gold Standard Cafe; and also of 4726 & 4728 Baltimore Ave., landlord to Vientiane Cafe. While these tenants are “neighborhood” places, without liquor licenses, enjoyed by most of the surrounding neighbors, and bringing few cars, acceptance is not universal, even for them. When the Gold Standard opened, the building was paint-bombed. Apparently, someone thought it was too “yuppie.” An apparently similar objection had been raised 10 years earlier, when anonymous people defaced the front of 4728 Baltimore while I was looking for a tenant for that space.

Neighbors object to a wide variety of uses – liquor uses, signs on churches, mosques, restaurants. People object to too many of anything: chain pharmacies, nail salons, hair cutting & hairdressing places. Where might it end? A vegetarian might not want a butcher shop; someone with allergies could object to the early-morning baking smells at a bakery. What’s a real “quality of life” issue, and what’s over the top?

But, the landlords have to pay the bills. In some cases, it’s not that property owners don’t WANT a sweet little boutique shop or daytime-only eatery; it’s that start-up costs for businesses are steep, and financing is very scarce. It can easily cost over $100K to start up a restaurant, even in one of our smallest spaces. Potential tenants we might love to have, can’t afford the start-up. Yet, the landlords have to pay the bills.

As a landlord, I pay property taxes, U&O taxes & trash pick-up bills to help keep our city afloat. My fire alarm systems are in compliance with City code. When I make improvements on my properties, I get permits from L&I, and I make sure that my tenants do the same. What might seem like a simple breech in the wall at 4726-4728 Baltimore to let Vientiane double its size by expanding into the former Mariposa space cost me over $10K, with all of the City’s requirements; the expansion cost Vientiane much more.

I think it would be very helpful if the neighbors who are so quick to criticize a landlord and a potential business would try to understand the needs of ALL of the parties – not just their own wishes as neighbors, viewing the situation in an idealistic way.