the worm turns, as West Broadway now wishes it were more popular

the ignominy of losing out to Broadway

Not sure how long this link to a Crain’s Small Business Newsletter (dated Jan 31 but distributed Feb 4) will last, but the gist is that West Broadway as a Soho retail corridor is waning in the face of the brighter moon on Broadway. Assuming the trend holds, the joke will be on West Broadway landlords who have signed leases with businesses that cannot sustain themselves there, and are closing (even, fleeing the country).

A number of retailers have already called it quits. Women’s apparel specialist Sigrid Olsen shuttered last year, and others, including Té Casan, Salviati and Sub Chrono, followed in the past few months. Many others are having problems.
Other boutiques are not even trying to cut a deal. Satellite Jewelry opened its 500-square-foot boutique at 412 W. Broadway three years ago. Now, faced with dwindling sales, the Paris-based company is clearing its shelves, breaking its 10-year lease and ceasing operations in this country.

how might West Broadway be like the Jersey Shore?
Maybe this is a temporary dip due to the overall retail economy, and West Broadway may be (relatively) popular as a retail destination again. Or maybe this is like the sand along the Jersey Shore that nature keeps pushing north, so that if the local pols can’t persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to erect groins and bring in tons of new sand, the beaches will be "lost". My understanding of the geology is that beaches can’t be "lost" because they are impermanent; the sand goes where nature "wants" to take it. The Corps — and all the owners of "beachfront" property — cannot stop nature from "taking" the sand, they can just try to interfere and/or replace.

Sounds to me as though Soho retail customers are the sand, and The Market sits in Mother Nature’s chair here. The West Broadway landlords were lucky (so they thought) some years ago in locking tenants in to high rents, based on based on projected foot traffic that is lower-than-projected (apparently having been diverted east towards Apple and along Broadway). But now — with stores unable to make money with that little traffic and that high rent — even the landlords may be in jeopardy, from vacated premises and a cycle of more darkened stores.

Of course, landlords control the rents (though not the foot traffic, directly), so they can moderate the rent (even mid-tenancy) to preserve the retail activity that survives, but I wonder how many of these landlords are the mom-and-pop building owners who used to own many small buildings in Soho. Moms-and-pops might be more likely to keep some rental stream going, and preserve some of the current feel; but institutional owners with a diversified portfolio are more likely to take a more big picture, longer-term view.
Either way, the macro factors that are driving foot traffic to Broadway are not likely to be substantially ameliorated. The Crain’s article continues:

But storefronts have few takers, and brokers say rents must come down or the once-vibrant artery will become a ghost town.

whose ghosts are being gored?
I get it that some people find West Broadway in Soho circa 2008 charming, but that sentence made me laugh, ruefully. Back in the day (late 1970s, early 1980s) local residents and businesses liked being a ghost town (or even earlier, of course, before St. Aloysius had to come down and a large field of brick sat where the Soho Grand now sits). When the yuppies pushed some of the artists out (rather, when the landlords pushed the artists out in favor of peole who could pay more …), there was grumbling that the charm of Soho was being lost. When Soho became so popular that double-decker tourist buses were a nuisance, there was grumbling that the charm of Soho was being lost. When the residents of West Broadway had to flee to the Hamptons or the Country each weekend to escape Euro-hordes, there was grumbling that the charm of Soho was being lost.
charming as sand?
But that Soho charm is another form of sand. It is the nature of any dense mixed-use neighborhood to evolve. (I believe that mixed-use is the key to this … vitality: for example, the West Village is [of course] charming, but it is only the mixed use part [today’s MePa] that is truly evolving.) And evolution can’t be stopped without dramatic (draconian?) efforts (West Village Preservation Committee vigilance + land-marking, for instance). The zoning (height) restrictions have not prevented the Chelsea blocks west of 6th Avenue to evolve towards condos and a different retail mix, just as they haven’t stopped Soho from evolving.
Unless the West Broadway stores hire people to escort people there (who otherwise might wander to Broadway; not a likely cost-effective strategy), retail foot traffic is going to go wherever it wants to go. (At the moment, apparently, not to West Broadway.) The stores and landlords will deal with it, or not. If they don’t, other stores and other landlords will replace them, or other uses will be found for these (still charming!) streets.
Tempis fugits. It always fugits.

© Sandy Mattingly 2009 



Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply