The corner store in a dense, rowhouse-dominated neighborhood was a glorious asset. As I child, I had the luxury of three within a block. There were two drugstores, each with soda fountains, and a classic grocery-delicatessen. There, you could buy a can of tomatoes and a package of TastyKakes and learn the neighborhood news. Some of the proprietors and employees often had the status of beloved neighborhood figures.
So when I heard of an effort of re-establish a corner store in Remington, I was heartened. What I did not know was that overly protective zoning laws are now stacked against what had been wonderful community assets.
I met with Peter Burkill, who resides on Miles Avenue near 27th Street. Burkill, a University of Maryland Medical Center physician who works in one of its clinics, was attracted to this city neighborhood and bought his house here. He, his wife and two neighbors acquired a vacant property, the former Valenza family corner store, for $65,000. Remington, like so many city neighborhoods, seemed to have stores on many corners.
Burkill and another neighbor, Ryan Flanigan, are affiliated with the Greater Remington Improvement Association and have started a tiny but important movement, "I support neighborhood commercial." It is aimed at adding a place in city zoning law for these precious neighborhood amenities.
Burkill said he wants to open a coffee shop and inexpensive restaurant.
"I'd like to have a place where you get a cup of coffee for a dollar," Burkill said.
What happened to the classic 1940s corner store was not a happy outcome. By the 1970s, what were chatty places had bullet-proof glass barriers. The coming of the larger "convenience" store, often with parking lots, added competition. As crime became more violent, the shopkeepers became targets. City zoning ordinances, rewritten in the 1970s, said that if these shops became vacant, they reverted to residential-only status. Many simply went vacant. Some were converted into living units, often in a clumsy manner.
"There should be a mechanism for these stores to reopen when the neighborhood is ready for them," Flanigan said. "In Remington we face a glut of vacant corner store properties. I counted five buildings that had been corner stores with the appropriate architectural features — big windows, diagonal doors and extra stories — that have been vacant since the businesses they held closed."
He said the rewriting of the zoning code being undertaken by the City Council presents an opportunity to codify the type of urban landscape Baltimore once enjoyed.
"I hope to see it again," he said. "A dense, walkable, mixed-use, inclusive and diverse city is achievable. I do not want to live in a 1970s, antiquated morass of mono-zoned neighborhoods empty of vital commercial activity."
A provision in the residential section of the proposed new zoning code would allow for a limited number of conditional commercial uses in buildings that have historically been used that way.
"This provision, called Neighborhood Commercial, is a vital mechanism that will allow communities to utilize vacant or underused spaces while retaining community input in that change," Flanigan said. "Beside, it looks silly to see storefront windows with living room curtains."
I considered how fortunate Remington has been of late. It has made great strides toward putting corner businesses back where they belong, as community assets that made the neighborhood livable and lively. I think of the popular coffee and sandwich shop, Charmington's, and its fellow corner businesses — Sweet 27 and the Dizz.
As I left Remington, I caught a whiff of the wood smoke coming from the chimney of the Parts & Labor restaurant-pub-butcher shop. I thought that this is what a neighborhood needs, life on the street and more of it.