In this post we want to highlight a great local business we recently had the pleasure of working with. General Sisters is a General Store that will soon open in North Braddock, providing affordable produce and bulk foods to the surrounding residents. General Sisters is the creation of Dana Bishop-Root and Ginger Brooks Takahashi who recently moved to North Braddock from Brooklyn, NY. Dana made the move in 2007 to work with local art organization Transformazium. She is driven by how art, education, and community collaboration can provide opportunities outside formal educational institutions. In addition to Transformazium Dana hoped to find work at a local grocery store, “grocery stores are special, they are a great place for people to meet, exchange ideas and share space. It’s a beautiful common denominator.” When Dana went to find her local grocery store in North Braddock, however, she found a food desert and a larger food justice problem.
North Braddock, like many small towns, used to have corner stores scattered throughout the community to provide residents with specialty foods-from a local butcher to a green grocer. However, many of these disappeared with the reduction in population and growing popularity of big box stores. This rich history, combined with Dana’s personal desire for a neighborhood grocery store inspired her to start one of her own.
Word spread of Dana’s vision, and soon Stephen Fergelec, the former owner of the General Sisters building, heard of her desire for a storefront. Stephen had operated a plumbing business out of 1140 Kirkpatrick Avenue for years, but the building had fallen into disrepair and he was looking for someone to continue its use as a locally owned business. Dana purchased the building and began work to restore the roof, flooring, and build out her dream. Through mutual friends in Brooklyn, Ginger Brooks Takahashi found out about the project and was inspired to see how she could help. Ginger and a larger group of Brooklyn friends made a trip to North Braddock to help work on the roof-all by hand, all self taught. Ginger became passionate about the project and soon moved to North Braddock herself.
The name “General Sisters” came from the roofing project as well. When rebuilding a roof, it is typical to strengthen old beams with new ones, a process called “sistering.” The concept struck a larger cord with the team, a metaphor for the vision of the store and the strengthening of the community. As Dana, Ginger and their friends finished the roof they wrote the names of people that inspired them on the support beams. “The roof is made up of their names and we are all part of the foundation of this project” says Ginger.
While much of the creation of General Sisters reads like a climb to success, it is truly a story of blood, sweat and tears. Dana and Ginger spent days clearing the overgrown lot surrounding their building to start a garden to provide fresh produce and herbs for the community and a side catering business they started to fund start-up and construction costs. They also work tirelessly to have their neighbors be just as much part of the creation of the store as they will as customers, all while facing financial and legal challenges. However, after many years of roadblocks, Dana and Ginger continue to push forward and are working with local non-profit Just Harvest to enter the final steps before opening the store. Most recently, General Sisters had to overcome the denial of their commercial use permit from the North Braddock Zoning Department, that’s where Trellis came in.
The Legal Challenge and Understanding Variances
North Braddock is unique in that the town performed a complete overhaul of its zoning ordinance in 2014. The ordinance redesignated the zoning districts and placed the General Sisters building in an all residential zoning district, which disallows commercial uses. Where a zoning ordinance disallows a use in a certain district, an applicant may attempt to seek a zoning variance. Variances are approved deviations from the rules for zoning uses in a district. However, because great deference is given to the zoning decisions made at the time of the ordinance the standard to obtain a variance is high.
In order to obtain a variance, an applicant must show:
That there are unique physical circumstances or conditions, including irregularity, narrowness or shallowness of lot size or shape or exceptional topographical or other physical conditions peculiar to the particular property and that the unnecessary hardship is due to such conditions and not the circumstances or conditions generally created by the provisions of this Chapter in the neighborhood or district which the property is located.
That, because of such physical circumstances or conditions, there is no possibility that the property can be developed in strict conformity with the provisions of this Chapter; and that authorization of a variance is therefore necessary to enable the reasonable use of property.
That such unnecessary hardship had not been created by the applicant.
That the variance, if authorized, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood or district in which the property is located nor substantially or permanently impair the appropriate use or development of adjacent property nor be detrimental to the public welfare.
That the variance, if authorized, will represent the minimum variance which will afford relief and represent the least modification possible of the regulation in issue.
The case for a variance is typically heard in front of a zoning hearing board, which is a quasi-judicial body that has jurisdiction over cases for variances, zoning appeals, and other zoning issues. Zoning boards are typically made up of 3 members, but can range between municipalities. When a zoning board meets, a solicitor is also usually hired to make sure that the board acts in accordance with the Municipalities Planning Code and establishes a clear record of the minutes of the hearing meeting(s) and the board decision. The Municipalities Planning Code establishes how a Board holds a hearing, what legal rules apply or don’t apply, and how a decision must be issued. Decisions of the zoning hearing board can be appealed by either the applicant or an individual or business with legal standing.
For General Sisters, Trellis helped guide them through this process. Pennsylvania Case Law provides how each element of the variance test must be met. A legal argument and evidence, including photo exhibits, are used to prove that an applicant meets each standard. The Zoning Hearing Board hears from the applicant, the zoning officer, as well as community members present at the meeting.
One key component of determining the granting of a variance is the fourth element: the variance will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood. This element gauges whether or not the community supports the variance and if the variance will cause a significant disruption to the noise, traffic, light, and consistency in the community. In the case of General Sisters, over 50 community members showed up to the zoning hearing to voice their support of the store. Many members stated their excitement to have fresh, local food within walking distance compared to having to walk or drive many miles. The neighborhood also expressed that General Sisters will create a sense of community in an area struggling with vacancy and crime. This support, along with meeting the other elements, helped build the foundation for a variance approval. General Sisters received their variance on June 13th, 2016 and hope to continue construction work soon.
We look forward to continuing to support General Sisters as they plan for their opening. If you want to learn more about the store and what they hope to offer, they are having an open house August 6th and 7th, 2016 at 1140 Kirkpatrick Avenue. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.
This post does not constitute legal advice. If you have any legal questions regarding zoning or permitting, please contact a licensed attorney. All photos courtesy of General Sisters.