Lack of space stymies our downtown

Music, the saying goes, is the spice of life.

Few may realize how close downtown Winslow came to losing its purveyor of fine recorded music just over a year ago. The Glass Onion, one of our community’s many plucky small, independently owned retail businesses, had lost its lease in Winslow Green. After a decade of operation, it was in danger of closing for want of a new storefront – with the Christmas shopping season at hand, no less.

“There was a complete lack of available space out there,” as owner Jeff Crawford tells it. “There literally wasn’t

anything in the size I was looking for... We were doing the unofficial death watch of other businesses, waiting for others to leave.”

Crawford was saved by the opening of “the Winslow,” which brought new retail space to the corner of Ericksen Avenue. But as documented elsewhere in this issue, others have not been so fortunate. The highly popular eatery Chili Cosmos is gone from the lunchtime landscape, while the Doozie boutique is about to succumb; both proprietors cite the upward climb of lease rates and the absence of available retail space downtown.

The subtext of the Winslow Tomorrow project has been how we might keep our large, “anchor” businesses in place downtown, and rightly so. But we’re glad to see the process is focusing attention on the needs of our many smaller outlets as well (see Stuart Walton’s informative column over on page A5). New entrepreneurs need room to start up, while established businesses require space to grow and expand. And new opportunities aren’t keeping pace with our growing residential population.

The good news is that merchants clearly want to do business in our downtown core. Winslow Way boasts ground-floor retail nearly from end to end, signifying a healthy district; storefront vacancies are at a miniscule 1 percent.

Yet parking and zoning constraints have tended to stymie improvement and redevelopment. You can count on one hand the number of new retail spaces that have gone in on Winslow Way in the last 10 years. Before “the Winslow” opened up, the most recent space we can recall is the oblong building on the south side of the Winslow Way that houses Heart and several other establishments, built in 1995. Lacking options in the core to build up or out, retail has instead inched north and south, to Lower Madison and Hildebrand Lane. Excellent projects attracting fine businesses, but by all accounts insufficient to meet the burgeoning demand for commercial space.

We don’t propose any answers today, but we do suggest that the notion of “Do Nothing, and Nothing Will Change” is long past its shelf life. Winslow needs a forward-thinking strategy to promote retail space. Let Winslow Tomorrow be the vehicle.

The big businesses on the block keep our downtown core chugging along, but the little ones give Winslow its special flavor – sometimes, its music. We need a good mix, and more can only be better.

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