The push continues for Narberth to open an independent coffee shop

The signature cappuccino from Townhall Coffee Co. in Merion Station. Townhall, a little more than a mile from Narberth, is the closest independent coffee shop to the borough.
The signature cappuccino from Townhall Coffee Co. in Merion Station. Townhall, a little more than a mile from Narberth, is the closest independent coffee shop to the borough. (Josh Fernandez /

It’s an issue familiar to those living in Narberth, leading a handful of residents like Miriam Shakow to campaign for a business downtown everyone could enjoy for their morning commutes and their at-home work: a coffee shop.

“I think more people are realizing the benefits of having a space like a coffee shop,” Shakow, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University, said.

The push for action on the coffee shop slowed down after a July 2011 meeting, but Shakow plans on moving the issue along at an upcoming Council meeting, motivated by a vacant space in the downtown area on Haverford Ave.

“It’s a very tantalizing, beautiful spot opened right now,” Shakow added.

Zoning has been the primary hurdle for the opening of a coffee shop in Narberth’s downtown, as it relates to the code’s form-based zoning and parking requirements. Borough Manager Bill Martin explained in an e-mail that the Narberth zoning code distinguishes between different uses of properties and permits certain uses in certain zoning districts, such as commercial uses like retail, wholesale, industrial and food or restaurant.

These zoning elements not only control items such as size, building area and density, but also dictate off-street parking. Martin said very few structures in the borough’s commercial district have their own off-street parking, so the majority of the businesses share and depend upon municipal-owned parking lots and curbside parking.

The code designates the amount of off-street parking required for each of these uses, usually by the square footage of the business.

“The first known term 'coffee shop' was in 1830,” Martin said. “It was defined as is presently as ‘a small restaurant that serves coffees and other drinks as well as simple foods.' It is a restaurant.”

The code provides for a few different restaurant or food uses, not based upon the type of food sold but rather the mechanics of operation, such as clientele getting to sit down, seek drive-thru or take-out.

Martin said the borough has 10 businesses without liquor licenses that meet one of these definitions. These 10 establishments exist either as a result of their own off-street parking or because they exist under what is called a non-conforming use under the code.

To get a non-conforming use, those seeking the zoning change for a property must go before the Zoning Hearing Board for a hearing and a request for a variance from the zoning code.

As the Main Line Times reported, then-Councilman Surge Ghosh motioned for the council to approve an idea that went through the Ad Hoc Economic Development Committee  – a motion to explore zoning changes.

The motion confused the council, who thought it was a recommendation, not a motion, up for consideration at the July meeting. Ghosh withdrew his motion and then offered it up as a recommendation.

In an e-mail to Neighbors, Building and Zoning Committee Chair and Councilman Bob Weisbord said the coffee shop issue had not been discussed since he and fellow newcomer Mike Alexander joined council in January.

Weisbord added that when a zoning ordinance is reviewed, it is required that the solicitor, the planning commission and the Montgomery County Planning Commission have an opportunity to offer their opinions according to Commonwealth Code number two.

Shakow, who started the blog Narberth Community Spaces in Jan. 2011 for the coffee shop push, said she planned on approaching the council about an ordinance for the coffee shop, as opposed to a variance, something a business owner gets for themselves.

“An ordinance would ease something the community could organize around … it creates an opportunity for anyone who’s qualified for the business,” Shakow said.

To date, approximately 80 people have filled out Shakow’s online survey expressing the desire for a sit-down coffee shop in Narberth. The social anthropology professor added that blog has generated a listserv of nearly 50 people interested in staying up-to-date on the coffee shop issue.

Before the July meeting, the survey had 57 respondents, 56 of whom indicated the desire for a coffee shop. Roughly 90 percent responded that they’d walk to a coffee shop all or most of the time.

The closest independent coffee shops are outside of Narberth, including Town Hall Coffee Co. in Merion Station, about 1.1 miles away, and Ardmore’s MilkBoy with a distance of about two miles.

Shakow said Narberth Café in the downtown area isn’t suitable for the needs a coffee shop could fulfill, because it has a more “diner atmosphere,” doesn’t maintain the desired hours of operation and isn’t a place patrons would sit in for hours since employees make their money from tips.

“It’s about having an inviting space where you stay for hours for work, meetings or to hang out with friends or kids at a place without alcohol,” Shakow said. “Kids or not, there are some people who would like to hang out in a space that isn’t a bar.”

Narberth resident Georgette DuBois knows this first hand, as she works from home or on the road with her laptop for her gentle yoga business in the area.

DuBois said a coffee shop would be the perfect business for a place like Narberth where many residents walk around town anyway and care deeply about the environment.

 “Another part of the appeal of getting a locally-owned coffee shop is that it’s the kind of establishment focused on being sustainable with business,” DuBois said. “That suits Narberth, very well.”

The next council meeting is Monday, March 12.