High rent hinders mom-and-pops

Owning a small “mom-and-pop” candy store in downtown Burlingame was a delight for Cheryl Enright — until high rent forced out her and many of her business neighbors.

Enright said her rent for the California Candy Company on Lorton Avenue, near Burlingame Avenue, tripled from when she opened the store 13 years ago to when she was forced to close in 2005.

“It was horribly disappointing — everyone always came to the store; we were always busy,” Enright said. “When our lease came up and it was time for us to negotiate, it was impossible because [of] the rent.”

The switch from mom-and-pop shops to national chain stores has Burlingame residents concerned, according to a four-day study conducted last week by 12 graduate students at the Coro Center Fellows Program in Public Affairs.

As housing and business rents soar, residents are worried that corporations downtown are pricing out small local businesses, and, in the process, losing the “small-town, tight-knit feel of Burlingame,” Coro Fellow Geoff Willard said.

For instance, national retailer Anthropologie recently replaced three local businesses downtown on Primrose Road, including the Chicken Chicken restaurant and Sneak Preview Video. Ann Taylor Loft also moved in recently downtown.

City officials said they realize the importance of keeping local stores, and one way to do that may be to change zoning rules to limit storefront sizes. That would help repel some of the chain stores, said Councilman Russ Cohen.

“It is imperative that Burlingame keep a vital mix of both mom-and-pops and larger enterprise, so that there’s a variety in our downtowns,” Cohen said.

White Dove Jewelry owner John Moodie said he left downtown Burlingame two years ago and relocated to Belmont after the landlord told him and the small business next door that he wanted to move a big restaurant into the spaces.

“The landlord said, ‘In a few years, none of you [small-business owners] will be here.’ You look at it now — he got what he wanted. There was no support for the little guy,” Moodie said. “When you walk down [Burlingame] Avenue, it’s basically Hillsdale [Mall] with no roof on it.”

It’s possible for small business owners to survive downtown, however, and Meyer-Bunje clothing storeowner Frankie Meyer is proof. Her shop has survived in the heart of the community at Lorton Avenue just a few steps from Burlingame Avenue for more than 20 years.

“A lot of my customers are disturbed about [chain stores moving in],” Meyer said. “They’re seeing the character and uniqueness of the community changing and deteriorating. If everyone has the same stores up and down the Peninsula, there’s no uniqueness and individuality for them to look at; it’ll destroy the shopping district here in my mind.”

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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