Many merchants along the six-block-long Delmar Loop seem to fancy themselves as exotic little fish, an eclectic and contented school of small entrepreneurs that is, until an oversize guppy or two gets added to their aquarium. When that happens, the little fish fret and claim their waters have been fouled.
For now the dreaded guppies are Chipotle Mexican Grill and Noodles & Company, two Colorado-based chain restaurants that will be moving into the building currently occupied by Streetside Records, a Loop mainstay for decades. Late last month the University City Council granted conditional-use permits to the eateries, a decision that fomented a swiftly organized revolt to place a cap on the number of formula restaurants and retail chains that can be allowed to do business in the Loop.
Such rebellions are nothing new among the Loop's specialty set. When Qdoba Mexican Grill moved to Delmar a couple of years ago, sound and fury ensued. But this time, some merchants insist, the stakes are higher.
"You have to wonder whether we've reached a tipping point now that we've diluted the characteristics that make the Loop a unique destination," says Andy Ayers, owner of Riddles Penultimate Café & Wine Bar. "We're getting to the point where people will say, 'We might as well stay in Fenton or Creve Coeur or Chesterfield,' because we won't be any different than they are. "
Adds Kelly von Plonski, owner of Subterranean Books: "People will stop coming when it's no longer a distinct place. I get so many people who come here from big cities like Manhattan and Chicago and say, 'It's so nice to see places like this, because we're losing them where we live.'"
Rick Fessler, co-owner of Brandt's Café, says placing a cap on chains is badly needed. "It's an absolutely great idea. That's what the Loop is all about places to go that are small and locally owned."
"There's no doubt that we're seeing a trend in the chain direction," offers Carrie Drda, owner of the Phoenix Rising gift shop.
But Dan Wald, a prominent Loop landlord, says the merchant's fears are unfounded. "The world isn't coming to an end because two chain restaurants are coming in. Hell, there used to be a Dairy Queen here," says Wald, who owns the building just east of Blueberry Hill. "We just need to strike a balance and find chains that fit in the Loop. A Ben & Jerry's fits. Starbucks fits. A Trader Joe's would probably work too."
Still, a number of shopkeepers worry about the escalating number of formula restaurants that have sprouted over the past several years, including Cold Stone Creamery, Jimmy John's and Crazy Bowls and Wraps. On the retail side, T-Mobile, Game Crazy and U.S. Cellular are recent arrivals.
"The economic reality of it," says veteran University City Councilman Bob Wagner, "is the chains will pay the property owners higher rents than the smaller businesses can afford, so some of the littler guys are going to get squeezed out."
Loop pioneer Joe Edwards, a landlord himself, says the average rent on Delmar is about $22 to $24 per square foot, but the range varies considerably.
Lew Prince, co-founder of Loop graybeard Vintage Vinyl, says the problem is that landlords have paid too much for the buildings and need chains willing to pay hefty rents. "Still, it's a difficult problem trying to balance property rights with the long-term health of the Loop," Prince concedes.
The recent tumult began January 31, when word spread that Hutkin Development Company, a St. Louis-based commercial real estate firm, had closed on the Streetside building and secured agreements with the two franchised restaurants to occupy the space. David Hutkin declined to comment about the purchase, the deals he cut with Chipotle and Noodles & Company or what he makes of the cap proposal.
"I don't think Mr. Hutkin is going to get himself a star on the Walk of Fame anytime soon," huffs one Loop merchant who asked not be identified.
Buffalo-based Transworld Entertainment Corp., which owns the two remaining Streetsides in the St. Louis area as well as Sam Goody and Suncoast Record stores, plans to relocate the record store to another location, yet to be determined. Its lease at 6314 Delmar Boulevard expires in January.
Chipotle operates nearly 500 restaurants in 21 states but only recently entered the St. Louis market. Noodles & Company has expanded to 130 outlets nationwide since its founding in 1995. Locally, it operates several stores in west St. Louis County.
Spearheading the move to institute a cap on chains is Patrick Liberto, owner of Meshuggah Café, who says the incursion of two new restaurants spurred him to action.
"We are going to lose our eclectic qualities. We're going to look like Clayton," Liberto complains. "The Loop is going to get a lot less interesting to people if they see the same things here that they see in their own neighborhood."
Liberto emphasizes that his "still-a-work-in-progress" cap ordinance is not motivated by fear of increased competition nor the specter of paying higher rent (he pays $16 per square foot), but rather about the dubious direction Delmar may be taking. "We don't want the Loop to become vanilla. I mean, I don't go to Memphis to eat at an Applebee's."
Liberto wants to set a limit that no more than ten formula restaurants and ten retail chains be permitted in the Loop, and that none can occupy a space greater than 4,000 square feet. The Delmar Loop is home to seven retail chains, including Footlocker and Blockbuster Video. When Chipotle and Noodles & Company arrive, the number of chain eateries will rise to thirteen, versus thirty-four independently owned restaurants.
In the mid-1980s, Carmel, California, became the first city in the nation to enact a formula restaurant ban, which prohibits all fast-food restaurant chains. Since then, more than a dozen cities most of them small municipalities with historic commercial and waterfront districts have followed suit with ordinances akin to the one Liberto is floating.
Joe Edwards, who opened his legendary Blueberry Hill in 1972 and is widely credited with revitalizing Delmar's struggling retail sector, says he's happy the issue of finding the right balance of formula outlets and independents has resurfaced.
"I think this dialogue has energized people," says Edwards, who chairs the Loop Special Business District. "Everyone wants to keep the unique flavor of the Loop." As far as the subject of capping is concerned, Edwards is diplomatically vague. "That's just one set of ideas," he says. "Chains are not inherently bad, but maybe in the Loop you need to have smaller unique chains."
Earlier this month Liberto's proposed ordinance was circulated to property owners. The reaction was largely negative. "I understand their concerns, but they [merchants] are not going to tell us who we can or cannot rent to," says one building owner who asked not to be named in print.
This past Friday afternoon merchants and landlords gathered for a two-hour meeting at Blueberry Hill. Liberto reports that owners were in full agreement that the Loop remain a thriving destination point but were wary of setting a precise cap on chains.
"There was, though, a consensus that if a chain store in going to come here, it ought to be something different than its other stores," says Liberto. "But what they really don't want is to get government involved."
Julie Feier, city manager for University City, says that's fine with her. "I know this is a critical policy issue, and I think everyone will be best served if they can hash it out themselves. We're not going to come in and say, 'We will regulate you.'"
Councilman Wagner agrees. "We're going to be listening to what the owners and merchants come up with. We're certainly not going to do anything radical."