Girard Avenue entrepreneurs get a little help from neighbors.
It’s no secret: Philadelphia’s not the kindest place for emerging small businesses. And there’s been a lot of outrage lately to back that up. Most recently, the Arlington, Va.-based Institute of Justice, a libertarian, civil-liberties law firm, released a scathing report that details our city’s out-of-date, confusing permitting and licensing, taxation and zoning codes, using the stories of several city entrepreneurs to illustrate its point. “As things stand, the mission of the city’s various offices and bureaucracies appears to be to stymie the creation of new businesses wherever possible,” concludes the report, “No Brotherly Love For Entrepreneurs: It’s Never Sunny For Philadelphia’s Small Businesses.”
But in spite of the city’s complicated licensing process, a few young entrepreneurs, a community development corporation and a couple real-estate agents are placing a bet: They’re going to develop Brewerytown into the city’s next great neighborhood by transforming Girard Avenue into a commercial hub. And they’re going to help emerging small businesses make it happen.
Two years ago, after conducting several residential rehab projects in the area, real-estate moguls David Waxman and Jacob Roller decided to partner up and focus on developing West Girard Avenue, specifically form 25th to 31st streets. “Dave … did seven shells on the 2900 block of Girard Avenue, which had looked like they were crack houses—some of them literally were crack houses,” says Roller, who co-manages MM Partners with Waxman. “We came to the realization that we wanted Brewerytown to reach its full potential, so, of course, we had to focus on Girard.”
The two began buying up as much space on Girard as they could get their hands on and, to bring in more foot traffic to the area, they decided to help entrepreneurs open new businesses in their properties. “We are constantly dealing with … zoning and building permits, but most people aren’t like us,” Roller says. “Most people don’t know what they’re getting into.” Really, MM has been acting as pressurer-in-chief, taking the lead in attracting businesses to the neighborhood by walking them through the complicated web of city ordinances and business grants.
Their first project—the “icebreaker” of the neighborhood, says Roller—is Mugshots, a coffee shop with locations in Fairmount and Manayunk. After years of rumors and false starts, the third location opened on the 2800 block of Girard, next to a deli and a Rita’s Water Ice.
“[MM Partners] came to me they said ‘We want you to open up a Mugshots.’ I said no,” says owner Angela Vendetti, who lives in Brewerytown. They asked her a second time, but Vendetti says she was sick of the headaches associated with opening a business; each Mugshots needed to be licensed separately.
When she expanded the Fairmount Mugshots in 2008, she says, there were more problems than what she experienced the first time around—new zoning, new health inspections, getting additional support from the neighborhood, and the idea that while waiting for approval from the city, she was losing money.
“Then,” she says, “MM Partners came to me and said, ‘There’s a grant available through the city, the Merchant’s Fund, why don’t you apply for that?’”
She did. The Merchants Fund, a local charity dedicated to giving grants to small businesses, had $50,000 available. “We said, ‘The way [the grant is] written, you’re the prime candidate they’re looking for,’” says Roller, recalling his conversation with Vendetti. “They want someone who has a track record. They want to know that if they’re putting up $50,000, it’s not going to be something that will open and close.”
The Merchant’s Fund grant had to be matched, and not wanting to let their plans shift mid-stream, MM Partners personally guaranteed another $50,000 for Mugshots. “We essentially said [to Vendetti], ‘Here’s $100,000 of free money,’” says Roller. Vendetti and MM Partners won the grant in March 2010.
And with MM’s money came MM’s help. They took over the majority of dealings with the city. “They had an attorney who represented us at the zoning hearing,” Vendetti says. “I dealt with the architect but [MM Partners] managed the construction. And I dealt with the health department.”
Which she says was the biggest annoyance—the agency’s lack of communication with the building inspectors. When Vendetti was expanding her Fairmount shop, she says the building inspector OK’d a double-sided sink that the health inspector had not. The sink then had to be rebuilt with new faucets and re-piped. The health inspector also required new splashguards between the sinks, which have since amounted to lots of bruised elbows. “It was like, boom,” she says. “Another thousand dollars.”
For potential business owners not as experienced or lucky as Vendetti, the Brewerytown Community Development Corporation offers help to its neighbors and potential entrepreneurs. In fact, Philly’s zoning and licensing codes are so confusing that the city actually pays the CDC to teach people how to navigate them.
That the city pays for such a service is not surprising considering some of the stories featured in the IJ’s report: business owners jumping through hoops, cutting deals with the city, getting special deals to sell already existing products with each other (for instance, a sandwich instead of bread and cold cuts separately), and dealing with parking spaces, trash, awnings, signs and sidewalk dining. The list goes on.
Yet despite these findings, revitalization remains a slow and often painful process. The city, for instance, is blocking one of the CDC’s main goals: to bring a grocery store into the neighborhood. For that they can thank Councilman Darrell Clarke, who in 2005 got a bill passed that prohibits the “retail sale of bakery goods, confectionery goods, fruits, vegetables, groceries, meat and/or seafood where the use exceeds 1,000 square feet of floor area.” Oh, and not to mention the “retail sale of drugs and cosmetics.”
The reason behind the bill? To “protect the existing residential and commercial properties which are within and which surround this district and are critical to the vitality of this section of the City.” Ah, well that explains it. Thankfully, new zoning laws are currently working their way through City Council. Hopefully, they’ll get passed. Knowing Council though, they very well won’t.
Though not everyone’s complaining.
“For this construction on Girard,” says Vendetti, “I feel like everything was easier. The space was smaller, so it didn’t have to adhere to as many regulations. And I, personally, didn’t have to deal with everything this time around [because of the MM Partners’ involvement].”