Kevin Riordan: Haddonfield's new massage studio raises concerns about direction of downtown area

Posted: May 23, 2011

A new massage studio is raising, rather than relieving, stress about the direction of downtown Haddonfield.

The Chinese Tai Ji Center is preparing to open at 144 Kings Highway E., a storefront left vacant after the Haddonfield Running Co. stepped across the street to larger quarters.

While the whole notion of massage therapy can still raise a few eyebrows, even in holistic Haddonfield, the main concern among many downtown boosters is how best to preserve the primacy of retail.

"That it's a massage business doesn't matter. What does matter is, it's another personal service business," says John LaProcido, chairman of the borough planning board, which last month established a seven-member subcommittee to study Haddonfield's land-use ordinance.

Says board member and borough Commissioner Edward F. Borden Jr.: "We may want to have some restrictions along Kings Highway."

That historic thoroughfare, and adjacent commercial blocks of Haddon Avenue and Tanner Street, currently host about 120 businesses.

Of them, 22 percent are personal service establishments such as banks, salons, and dry cleaners; a study by the borough's downtown consultant puts the ideal proportion for Haddonfield at 10 to 15 percent.

"What we're looking at is, 'What should be the balance of personal service vs. retail vs. food businesses?'" says subcommittee member Lisa Hurd. She's also the retail coordinator of the Partnership for Haddonfield, the downtown business improvement district.

Hurd says services tend to generate less foot traffic than stores or restaurants. And space downtown "is not unlimited," she notes.

Several business owners - none of whom want to speak on the record - all tell me they're surprised the borough gave a green light to the massage center.

Permission was granted after the applicant, Ping Lu of Philadelphia, met conditions for such things as parking and waste disposal, according to Borden.

"We did not have grounds to deny the application," LaProcido says. "We are not out to be prejudicial to any [applicant] . . . but we do have a responsibility to make sure our land-use ordinance is forward looking. We've already exceeded the benchmark for personal service businesses, and, we're adding another one."

The concern has "a certain degree of merit. . . . You can lose the retail flavor," says Gerald Levin, a downtown property owner who will be Lu's landlord.

But Levin, who owns office as well as retail buildings in Haddonfield, insists that "less traditional" establishments also have their place. And the long-term issue for downtown is less the business mix than the limited amount of customer parking, he says.

I knock on the massage center's front door and find Lu inside, chatting with workers who are finishing a row of massage rooms along a long corridor.

The owner is friendly but appears to speak about as much English as I do Mandarin. A worker graciously attempts to act as a translator, but I'm not sure how much we understand each other either.

The man, whose name is Guoquiang Mei, tells me the business will be open next week. The paper-covered display windows have inspired curiosity; others have knocked, too.

"I tell them" about the massage center, Mei says.

Lu makes sure I leave with a brochure; all services are $1 per minute and include Swedish and deep tissue massage, reflexology, and acupressure. "We can help," the brochure says.

As it happens, I already have my own (excellent) professional massage therapist.

Since I also like dining, enjoy shopping, and require haircuts regularly, I'm all for having these goods and services available in a distinctive, walkable, pleasant place like downtown Haddonfield.

But I also understand why the borough doesn't want its lively commercial district to morph - however slowly - into a strip of spas, nail salons, medical offices, and martial arts schools.

These are perfectly fine enterprises. But they're hardly the building blocks of the regional shopping and dining destination Haddonfield is working hard to become.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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