It's not that it's a great time for retail generally. A couple days ago NBC News reported that over a thousand stores closed in a recent week, and more than 100,000 retail workers have lost their jobs since October 2016. Retail space is overbuilt, and that, along with online buying and other changes in taste and habit (malls stopped being cool decades ago) have decimated shopping malls.
But our neighborhood commercial areas aren't enclosed malls or strip malls - they are appealing, and walkable, and in well-established neighborhoods with substantial buying power. In spite of that, though, businesses struggle and the latest round of closings in Virginia Highland has reignited the discussion about what's going on. In our small commercial area in Morningside, it seems that vacancies linger longer than they do in Virginia Highland, where hope springs eternal and retailers keep trying. There's a "Coming Soon" sign up where Half-Moon Outfitters was and another empty location also will reopen sometime before too long as something else. But if rents are so high that the businesses the neighborhood actually can and will support can't survive, and there aren't enough destination shops to fill the spaces, at some point, places stay vacant, because once rents go up, they don't go down.
There was an article in the New York Times last week about what happened to a small retail area on Bleecker Street in West Village in New York City. There used to be neighborhood businesses like bodegas and laundromats and hardware stores, but then the high-end stores came in, and the neighborhood was briefly full of high-priced designer shops. Then the designer stores failed (they didn't get much business), and now the rents are too high for anything else and the storefronts are vacant.
"If many of the high-end stores along Bleecker didn’t prosper as businesses, 'they succeeded in transforming the area into a luxury retail neighborhood that feeds on itself,' said Jeremiah Moss, who has tracked the city’s ever-changing streetscape on his blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, since 2007.
"Bleecker Street, Mr. Moss said, is a prime example of high-rent blight, a symptom of late-stage gentrification. 'These stores open as billboards for the brand,' he said. 'Then they leave because the rents become untenable. Landlords hold out. And you’re left with storefronts that will sit vacant for a year, two years, three years.'"Here are the last several paragraphs of the article:
"Elad Yifrach, the founder and creative director of L’Objet, an upscale décor brand that opened its first New York store last fall in one of the former Coach outposts, believes the area still has retail magic, despite the recent hard times.
“'Bleecker is quintessential West Village,' he said. 'The most beautiful townhouses are around there. The street needs to go back to bringing a cool factor, things that will inspire the audience.'
"For many longtime Village residents, what the street is missing is not a cool factor but the essential mix of businesses that makes a neighborhood function. On a recent afternoon, Marjorie Reitman, who has lived in the Village for 43 years and who was out on Bleecker Street walking her neighbor’s dog, Walter, reflected on the street’s mercantile past.
“'I remember when I first moved down here,' she said. 'There was a hardware store owned by an elderly couple, a grocery store, a newspaper store.'
"She was standing in front of ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo, a clothing boutique that opened in February to sell $115 'destroyed wash' T-shirts and other garments. The store had no customers, and the front door was open, allowing the air-conditioning to pump out into the street, something Ms. Reitman lectured the young sales associates about.
'That’s the attitude: "I have money, I can pay the fine, I don’t care,"' Ms. Reitman said.
"The original Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker that started the boom was next door with its windows blacked out. Ms. Reitman had an idea for that space and the other empty stores that dot Bleecker Street like missing teeth in a very expensive mouth.
"'They should all be pot shops,' she said. 'Seriously. I’m not kidding. I can’t imagine what else could go in and pay the rent.'"If it is not possible to make enough to pay the rent, no one will stay in business, and once rents go up, they don't, apparently, go down. So Caramba is replaced by Burger Tap which is replaced by the waffle sandwich place (okay, so maybe there is a reason other than high rents why some of these places didn't make it) which is replaced by Timone's which is replaced by Timone's which is replaced by Whiskey Bird. I certainly wish the Whiskey Bird folks well, but it they don't make it, it's back to brown paper covering the windows and a "For Lease" sign.
I would like to be optimistic but I'm not. I don't know if there is any turning the clock back, once you lose the places that make your neighborhood function for the people who live there. If the business plan requires that lots of people come from outside the neighborhood, then there's the reality of competition from cooler places and traffic and parking -- it might work for Murphy's, but it's hard to see it working for the entire commercial district. Our neighborhood commercial areas may not be quite at the "high-rent blight" stage, but if it happens, at least now we know what to call it.
And for all those folks on Nextdoor, we have the answer -- the rents are too high.