Does a Thrift Store Really Need a 40-Page Zoning Decision?

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Later in the document, a community member is quoted as saying she would “prefer a bookstore” to the thrift store, and another member of the Hillandale Citizens’ Association points out that there are no gyms, hardware stores, or arts and crafts stores in the immediate neighborhood.

Zoning can permit or not permit these types of businesses, and sometimes local governments can lure businesses with incentives (not that they should). But it’s almost as if the appellants think that the desired businesses can be conjured into existence. There are much larger economic and demographic factors that determine what businesses locate where. 

There’s also the issue of what “community” or “neighborhood” means. Another appellant, for example, “stated that she likes to be a patron of her community, and that in her opinion it is important to have neighborhood-friendly shops and retailers. She testified that in her opinion, the proposed use [thrift store] serves a different type of community and has a different draw.” Huh.

A representative for the thrift store company pushed back on this characterization. He expected 80 percent of the thrift store’s customers to come from within three miles—importantly, the general expected or intended range for C-1 retail—and that there are 200,000 people within that range. He also noted how few of those 200,000 locals live under the community association that filed the appeal.

Then, of course, there’s traffic. After the exchange over what the trade area of the thrift store would be and how much traffic it would bring into the immediate area, a state senator proposed a traffic study.

All of this is to determine whether an unremarkable chain thrift store was allowed to open up shop in a defunct big-box store that had been sitting empty in a major area shopping center for about five years. In other words, something that to most people should require virtually no deliberation, planning, or regulation at all.

This is how buildings deteriorate until they cannot be reused at all, without major renovation. It also means that no business fills that spot, which is not good for local residents or for the rest of the stores in the plaza. There’s no indication in almost 40 pages of hairsplitting legalese that any of these actual, concrete costs and opportunity costs are being considered.

If this is making your head swim or your eyes glaze over, well, that’s the point.

It’s also a lesson in how the dry, arcane, technocratic language of zoning and permitting conceals values and assumptions about what people and activities belong where. Do the people who shop in a thrift store not belong in the neighborhood? What does it mean to say that a store selling used, heavily discounted goods, in an area that has a large working-class immigrant population, is not, as Eileen Finnegan put it, “community-oriented”?

The Hillandale community is no longer a newly built, mostly white, middle-class neighborhood. The types of stores that older residents would like—a replacement for Ames, a small hardware store, a bookstore—have largely ceased to exist for reasons far above anything at the neighborhood level. “The neighborhood” is not a constant thing over time, but the sum of the people who live in the area. These suburban communities will change in ways nobody can fully predict, with or without the approval of the old guard.

If this sounds dismissive of the people who have lived there the longest and perhaps are the most invested in their place, remember what the thrift store’s spokesman said. Very few locals belong to any of these neighborhood associations, and even fewer took any time to protest the arrival of this new store. And the only thing the land-use regime did was to introduce choke points and veto points, and delay a reasonable and unobjectionable adaptation in a place that is evolving, to the extent that its development pattern allows it to do so.

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