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Some see new future for corner stores in Remington

Vacant corner store "just feels really unloved," artist says.

In better times, the store at the corner of the Miles and 27th in Remington was a cobbler's shop, a deli and a candy store.

Now, it sits vacant, having collected water and mold for years.

"It just feels really unloved," says Katie Chen, 31, a local artist who hopes to open a coffee shop and art studio there. "We'd like to open as soon as possible. The space has been vacant for so long."

But there's a catch. The site is one of 12 corner stores in Remington that — despite their history as businesses — are now zoned for use only as residential properties, an awkward situation that has left eight of them vacant.

A bill sponsored by City Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the area, seeks to change that, allowing these vacant properties to once again be used as stores. Stokes envisions a bustling Remington, with art galleries, tool shops and laundromats at the ends of blocks of rowhouses.

"People all over the city would much prefer that we have small neighborhood businesses," Stokes said. "We should never have to get into a car to get groceries or grab a coffee or get your hair cut."

A City Council committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the measure, drawing applause from dozens of Remington residents affiliated with the Greater Remington Improvement Association who packed the council's chambers. The bill is now scheduled to go before the full council next week.

The proposed zoning change would allow small businesses at the sites, but would not permit "liquor stores or taverns," according to the city's planning department. The department, which supports Stokes' bill, warned that if the vacant stores continue to sit unused they "could become a blighting influence on the neighborhood."

Still, some see the proposal as a troubling development for Remington. Joan Floyd, president of the Remington Neighborhood Association — a different community group — testified against the zoning change. She said it would set a "dangerous precedent" that could lead to rowhouses elsewhere in Baltimore getting converted into businesses.

Floyd also questioned why the council is pushing through a rezoning bill for Remington while the city's comprehensive rezoning plan is being worked on in committee. She called the measure "piecemeal rezoning" and worries that liquor stores or other undesirable businesses could be allowed once the citywide plan is approved.

"This corner store bill is a distraction from what people need to focus on, which is the comprehensive rezoning map," Floyd said.

Since 2012, the council has been working on the first citywide rewrite of zoning laws since the 1970s. But Stokes said his bill is needed because they rewrite is taking too long.

"We've been waiting almost four years," Stokes said. "There are small business operators who are ready to go. They've been sitting around for years."

Community members see Remington, located just south of popular Hampden, as going through a revival.

In recent years, the Single Carrot Theatre and Parts and Labor, a restaurant and butcher shop, opened in a renovated tire shop. A former Census Building was developed as Miller's Court, which houses 30,000 square feet in office space and 40 apartments marketed to teachers. And a former broom factory was converted into a garden center.

Remington is also home to the popular cocktail bar W.C. Harlan, and in January, President Barack Obama visited the neighborhood to have lunch at the coffee shop Charmington's.

The population grew by nearly 7 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Jed Weeks, a board member of the Greater Remington Improvement Association, said the neighborhood in rapidly getting better, but the vacant corner stores remain one of the persistent symbols of neglect.

"We went from several hundred vacants down to just a few dozen vacant properties," he said. "It's been a nice affordable place for folks to move. However, these corner store properties are still vacant."

The proposed zoning change would give the neighborhood an "opportunity to get local, small business owners into these properties," Weeks said. "With the exception of a 7-Eleven, we don't have a place you can walk and get basic household needs. We would love to be a more walkable, livable neighborhood."

Members of the Greater Remington Improvement Association have gone door-to-door in the neighborhood, collecting more than 260 signatures in favor of the change.

Chen's husband, Peter Burkill, a University of Maryland Medical Center physician, said the couple have worked hard fixing up their property on Miles Avenue — spending weeks converting the property into a site that can accommodate a coffee shop, bakery and artist studios. Burkill said he's spoken with owners of the other vacant stores, who said the properties really couldn't be renovated as residences, and the zoning was a problem for development as businesses.

"These properties are really designed to be used as stores," he said.

In a previous city rezoning, the neighborhood stores were allowed to remain in business as a grandfathered use. But a 2010 law said that once such properties stood vacant for a year, they reverted to residential zoning.

City Councilman Bill Henry said he's noticed a similar problem with vacant storefronts near Patterson Park; they would not be covered by Stokes' bill.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently went on a "crime and grime" walk of Remington and agreed that the vacant corner stores there are a problem. She plans to sign the bill if it reaches her desk, said her spokesman Howard Libit.

"The bill is being put forward more quickly because we have a real goal here to make a more walkable community in Remington," Libit said. "The mayor visited Remington and walked through the neighborhood. This was something that resonated with her."

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