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City approves zone change

Serendipity manager Alexandria Lejune has heard it numerous times: Tourists and many residents would rather shop in quaint Grass Valley than in a Roseville mall.

“We need more family-oriented businesses here,” Lejune said. Customers at her boutique clothing store tell her they would like more retail shops in the Gold Rush-era downtown, she said.

Grass Valley City Council members agreed with Lejune’s customers. On Tuesday, they approved the first reading of a new zoning code that city leaders hope will encourage even more shops.



If council members approve the measure upon second reading, it is expected to take effect sometime in the spring.

The city’s new development code allows only retail businesses in ground floor, storefront spaces. Offices for businesses such as real estate agencies, insurance companies, lawyers and doctors can be upstairs or at the back of storefront businesses.




Such businesses already there – there are five in the downtown core – have been grandfathered in. They can remain or sell to other similar businesses. But if the use of those spaces goes back to retail, then retail it will remain.

The zoning change impacts a four-block area called the T, which encompasses Mill Street between Neal and West Main streets, and West Main Street between Church and South Auburn streets.

Growing trend

Retail-only zoning restrictions are not unique to Grass Valley. Last month, Truckee passed a similar zoning restriction to promote business activity. Nevada City banned real estate offices in ground floor storefronts in December 2005.

“It’s such a cool thing,” said Aimee Gregory, co-owner of Aimee Taylor. The new business on Mill Street specializes in jewelry and handcrafted items, and Gregory wants all the foot traffic she can get.

It’s not so cool to Tom Coleman, owner of the National Hotel in Nevada City.

“It’s really stupid,” said Coleman, who was at Tuesday’s meeting in Grass Valley.

To Coleman, it’s a matter of private property rights and allowing business owners to sell storefront space to whatever business interest they want.

“A town should have diversity in its downtown,” Coleman said. Grass Valley has joined Nevada City in its interest to “duplicate the mall environment in the downtown area,” he said.

But mall environments often are carefully orchestrated to keep people strolling from shop to shop, according to downtown revival experts. Too many nonretail storefronts can stop the foot traffic crucial to small businesses.

Lejune and other Grass Valley business owners said they hope more retail shops would bolster pedestrian traffic in their downtown.

“They don’t want to drive all the way down the hill,” Lejune said of her customers.

Understanding in offices

Downtown office owners generally understand why retail is favored in the area, Grass Valley Downtown Association Executive Director Howard Levine said. “It’s not a new phenomenon.”

Gary Graff, building owner and manager of the Wells-Fargo Insurance Services (formerly Acordia Insurance), said he hadn’t given much thought to the city’s new zoning restriction.

“Retail is better for the downtown area and it gets (the city more) sales tax revenue,” Graff said.

Wells-Fargo Insurance or predecessor companies have been in the same location on Mill Street for more than 30 years, and there are no plans to move the business, Graff said.

Brad Blair, owner of Confectionately Yours and Downtown Association board member, said the need for more retail extends beyond adding foot traffic.

There’s a danger too much office space downtown could outprice retail interests with slimmer profit margins, Blair said.

“There’s nothing wrong with doctors and lawyers above (downtown) businesses, Blair said. “It keeps that old town feeling.”

But Blair added: “Once you start kicking retail out, the doctors and lawyers (remaining on the first floor) can afford to pay higher rents.”

The vibrancy of the downtown then would be crushed, he said.

To contact Staff Writer Greg Moberly, e-mail gregm@theunion.com or call 477-4234.


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