View Full Version : Old-Time Shopping Is in Fashion in Wealthy Towns

June 7th, 2003, 08:12 PM
June 8, 2003

Old-Time Shopping Is in Fashion in Wealthy Towns


In some affluent suburbs around the country, people are returning to the old-fashioned way of shopping, urban retail analysts say: strolling along a downtown street, stepping into a store, stepping outside to browse the next few stores, lunching at a cozy restaurant, pausing to chat with a friend in the shade of a sidewalk tree.

The creation of compact upscale shopping streets in the downtowns of wealthy, established suburbs like Westport and Greenwich began to take hold across the country in the mid-90's, said Geoffrey Booth, director for retail development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

"These pedestrian-friendly environments are rich in a sense of place," he said. "People in suburbia feel they deserve better than being restricted to malls. Traveling in Europe also contributed to dissatisfaction with choices of shopping."

Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow for retail and urban entertainment at the institute, a real estate research and education group based in Washington, added: "Suburban customers are saturated with shopping centers. They are looking for a reflection of what they perceive as their lifestyle, or what they aspire to, even if they live 20 miles from a Greenwich Avenue or Westport's Main Street.

"Shopping in Manhattan is so diverse, it's overwhelming for them. People want well-edited retail. Going to places like Westport or Greenwich is more comfortable."

Lois Schine, president of the Westport Chamber of Commerce, said, "We get people coming up from New York to shop, although the stores on Main Street are the same ones they go to in New York." Local people, tired of malls, also shop in the stores on Main Street, she said.

To support solid blocks of upscale stores paying rents of up to $125 a square foot a year, towns need populations with high incomes. In Connecticut, Greenwich and Westport are the only affluent communities to have concentrated high-fashion streets.

Westport's average income within a one-mile radius of Main Street is estimated at $183,000, and the median house value is $675,000, according to research done by Wien & Malkin Properties of Manhattan before buying property there. Estimates on a townwide basis from the Greenwich assessor's office are a median income of $122,719 and a median house price of $699,400.

Last month, Wien & Malkin bought a 17,300-square-foot, one-story building on Main Street in Westport for $18.1 million — more than $1,000 a square foot — outbidding several competitors. It contains stores operated by the Gap, Ann Taylor and J. McLaughlin. Annual rents are around $100 a square foot and existing leases for the Gap and Ann Taylor expire in 2011; J. McLaughlin's lease ends in 2009.

Deborah Foehr, who owns Star Commercial Real Estate in Westport, noted that "Ann Taylor, Talbot's and similar stores do almost $1,000 worth of business per square foot."

THIS is W.&M.'s first foray into retail ownership in Connecticut, although the company is known in the state for its elegant office buildings in Stamford and Norwalk. It also owns 300,000 square feet of retail condominium properties on the ground floor and lower floors of Manhattan office and residential buildings.

"That's where we got the idea," said Anthony E. Malkin, president of the company. "We've been looking in the suburbs for retail opportunities, and we came up with Westport because of the terrific location and creditworthy tenants."

The seller of the Westport property was Carpenter & Company, based in Cambridge, Mass. "There was an enormous increase in value of the property over time," said the company's president, Richard L. Freedman. He would not say what he paid for it 20 years ago, but now, he said, "we are interested in situations that have more potential for turnaround than growth."

Sales of retail buildings in Greenwich and Westport are rare, given restrictive zoning, a lack of developable land and a steady flow of national retailers willing to pay high rents. Jeffrey Dunne, a senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis in Stamford, said: "People who own those buildings are not in a rush to get out because they've watched that kind of real estate appreciate. Rents have outgrown rents in general, outperformed the rest of the market."

Replicating the swank interiors of their Manhattan stores, the high-end national chains on Main Street or Greenwich Avenue include Williams Sonoma, Country Road, Banana Republic, Brookstone's, Coach and dozens of others. It has taken 20 years to make the transition to national retailers from the mom and pop stores that had served the local community for generations.

There are few family-owned stores left in original hands, Ms. Foehr said. In today's market, stores sometimes move back and forth on the same street. Lillian August, a chain of furniture and home accessories stores, has moved stores in both towns more than once as expansion demanded or negotiations with a landlord broke down.

On the other hand, some stores have remained at the same sites for decades, even as their buildings passed from one owner to another. Oscar's Deli on Main Street in Westport was established in 1948. Lee Papageorge, who worked for Oscar's as a high school student, eventually bought the building from his former boss and continues to run it. Achorn's Pharmacy, another stalwart, has been in business under that name since 1927.

Patrick Smith, a principal of Staubach Company Retail Services in Manhattan, said, "It's a testament to the strength of those markets that several local retailers are thriving." He cited Richard's, a longtime family-owned men's and women's clothing store that carries high-end designer brands, and Wish List, a new regional teenage girl's shop, both in Greenwich. "One reason they have become what they are is because there's no dominant mall competitor," Mr. Smith said.

Dozens of local owners, he said, still exist on Main Street and Greenwich Avenue, although unable to pay refitting and other costs that malls can, they are on short-term leases. As more national retailers come in, he said, "a lot more money is spent on upgrading, and leases are longer."

Jeff Berkes, director of acquisitions for Federal Realty Trust, a 41-year-old real estate investment trust that owns 60 million square feet of street retail and shopping centers valued at $2 billion, said the company's interest in Connecticut was restricted to Greenwich, Westport and West Hartford, except for one shopping center in Bristol.

Last year, it sold a 10,000-square-foot retail building at 27 Main Street in Westport for $7.5 million; the 16,000-square-foot Eddie Bauer building, also in Westport, for $7.45 million; and a 24,000-square-foot building at 252 Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich for $16.5 million.

Greenwich is a much bigger market than Westport. Westport's highly concentrated two-block Main Street — as opposed to the many retail concentrations along the Post Road — forced the market toward national fashion tenants, while Greenwich Avenue's more than four blocks has 180 very diverse businesses, with more on the nearby Post Road. The Greenwich population of 65,000 exceeds Westport's 23,000 and its large number of corporations whose executives may not even live in town are potential customers of Baccarat, Tiffany's, Saks Fifth Avenue Resort and the rest.

"Most deals get done without advertising," said Marshall Heaven, head of M. H. Heaven Real Estate in Greenwich. "Selling Greenwich Avenue buildings is difficult, not only because owners are happy with the good rents, but the town does not want to lose the apartments above the stores to office use."

OWNING real estate in Greenwich, tax-wise, is cheaper than in almost any other town in the state. Its mill rate — the amount of annual tax per thousand dollars of assessed value — is 11.294, compared with Westport's 20.1. "Greenwich Avenue is our most valuable land," said the town tax assessor, Ted Gwartney. "People can afford to pay the highest rents, up to $200 a square foot, similar to Manhattan's, because of the lower tax rate."

Parking problems have failed to faze shoppers. Parker Harding Plaza, Westport's 277-space lot behind Main Street, spans the length of the stores and provides access to their rear entrances but does not eliminate driving around and around to find a spot. Greenwich Avenue has diagonal parking that makes backing out into traffic an adventure, but drivers can try their luck on surrounding streets and in the 1,500 parking spaces behind the stores.

Will high-fashion street retail in Westport, Greenwich, Manhasset, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Evanston and so on put some malls out of business? Yes, said Mr. Beyard of the Urban Land Institute. "But only smaller, older ones," he added. "Fortress malls, like Short Hills, N.J.; Westfarms at the Hartford-Farmington border; and most of those across the country, by virtue of their size, strong tenants and accessibility of surrounding markets will stay." *

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

June 8th, 2003, 07:43 AM
"But only smaller, older ones," he added. "Fortress malls, like Short Hills, N.J.; Westfarms at the Hartford-Farmington border; and most of those across the country, by virtue of their size, strong tenants and accessibility of surrounding markets will stay." *

What if they didn't ?
Can you imagine deserted malls of this size ?
I don't know why, I don't really dislike the idea.

June 15th, 2003, 08:23 AM
June 15, 2003

Can Old Malls Be Taught New Tricks?



Finalists in the Dead Malls competition: shopping next door to a wetlands.

THE Valley Plaza Mall in North Hollywood, Calif., was once the premier shopping center in this region. Built in 1947, it was only the second mall in greater Los Angeles, and it was among the first malls in the nation to be designed as a unified entity.

But today Valley Plaza is suffering. Approximately 30 of its 125 storefronts are vacant. Because it doesn't have a single owner, the center has had difficulty formulating the remodeling and expansion crucial to its continuing health. With bigger malls sprouting all the time in Southern California, this San Fernando Valley landmark could face outright closure.

That's why the architect Pierre De Angelis, 29, and his partner, Carmen Suero, 26, chose Valley Plaza as their subject when they entered the Dead Malls Competition, held here recently by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. Mr. De Angelis and Ms. Suero's submission was among 5 winners chosen out of 75 entries from the United States and a few other countries, including England, Israel and Australia, in a competition to generate new ideas about how the shopping center, that symbol of American consumerism, can be transformed. Although none of the designs are expected to be built, the Forum will publish a book on the competition and the larger issues behind it in August.

"The mall represents a point in time in the evolution of retailing," said Will Fleissig of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a San Francisco organization devoted to progressive urban planning. "Now we're reaching the end of that era and entering something new." Mr. Fleissig was on the competition's jury of nine architects, developers and academics.

Because malls gather a variety of goods and services into a central cluster, new urbanism advocates like Mr. Fleissig see them as potentially beneficial public spaces, but only if the malls can respond better to their surrounding environments.

"I don't think there's anything wrong, per se, with the inside of malls," said another juror, Julie Eizenberg of Koning Eizenberg Architecture in Los Angeles. "The problem is with their transition to the outside."

Although there is not one formula for making the mall a healthier urban space, there is a consensus that "to have an ongoing life, malls need to take on more uses: social services, housing, religious institutions," said Warren Techentin, who organized the competition. He cited the Paseo Colorado mall in Pasadena as a good model, with apartments on top of traditional mall retailers like Macy's and Sam Goody. The Paseo Colorado also has an underground parking lot, which integrates the mall with the pedestrian-oriented shops of downtown Pasadena better than a traditional surface parking lot would have done.

Most entries, however, did not include such a mixture of tenants and uses. Instead, many submissions sought partial or total reinvention of the existing space. One of the 21 finalists envisioned a women's minimum-security prison. Another proposed a group of facilities with arts themes. A winning entry for the Vallejo Plaza Mall in Vallejo, Calif., offered by Stoner Meek Architecture & Urban Design of San Francisco, imagined the restoration of nearby wetlands and an estuary while consolidating still-open stores into a defunct Kmart.

Perhaps the most controversial entry, Mr. Techentin said, was a winning proposal for the Eagle Rock Mall in Eagle Rock, Calif., by Elizabeth Meyer and Ann Rosenberg, who were architecture students when the competition began. Purposefully challenging New Urbanism strategies, their proposal looked back to the mall's suburban origins, with cul de sacs and zigzagging streets, to create a "lifestyle park" of shops.

The diversity of design among the winners may stem from confusing statistics on the health of the American mall. In 1960 there were 3,000 shopping centers in the United States, with four square feet of retail space per shopper. Today there are nearly 40,000 shopping centers in the nation, with 19 square feet of space per shopper. However, according to the book "Greyfields Into Goldfields: Dead Malls Become Living Neighborhoods," published by the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2001, nearly one-fifth of America's regional malls, which average about 500,000 square feet, are dying or declining. Meanwhile, larger malls averaging about 900,000 square feet often take their place.

The disparity suggests a kind of retail social Darwinism: to avoid death, malls must continually get bigger, adding movie theaters and other amenities in an effort to outpace their competitors. That's why smaller regional malls are often the ones to go while behemoths like the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., still flourish.

But Jeffrey Inaba, a juror and one of the authors, with Rem Koolhaas and others, of the "Harvard Design Guide to Shopping," said: "Any time there's a plan to just enhance and expand, that's the smell of death. You might add 12 years of life, but that shouldn't be good enough for our profession." To survive in the long run, Mr. Inaba said, malls need to embrace reinvention.

What the five winning designs shared was an acknowledgment that the typical "dumbbell" mall shape, with four or more big-box anchor tenants connected by smaller retail shops, is becoming obsolete.

The De Angelis-Suero plan for Valley Plaza, for example, eliminated anchor tenants, which are less profitable on a per-square-foot basis than smaller stores. The plan also eliminated duplication of retail types, even though duplication had been a pioneering aspect of Valley Plaza. "Our idea was that the only way to undo it was to propose an even more neutral and simple diagram," Mr. De Angelis said.

Their proposal is a sharp contrast to the actual redevelopment plan being offered for the plaza by the J. H. Snyder development company of Los Angeles, which allocates $70 million to add more than 300,000 square feet of space. "It's a hodgepodge of old buildings," Mr. Snyder said of the mall. The developer acknowledged that housing and other amenities ought to be included in future shopping centers, although they are not planned for Valley Plaza.

Mr. De Angelis hopes his proposal can at least influence thinking about how future malls are built. "The real problem with dead malls isn't that they're dying," he said. "It's that they're being built." *

Brian Libby lives in Portland, Ore., and has written about architecture for Architectural Record, Metropolis and Salon.

The mall as women's prison.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

June 15th, 2003, 09:35 AM
Retro inmate fashion.

November 1st, 2006, 12:31 AM
Are We Shopping? Is This a Store?

A scene from a city sidewalk? Wrong. It’s a Ruehl No. 925 clothing store inside the Tysons Corner Center mall in McLean, Va.

Published: November 1, 2006

It’s hard to window shop without the windows.

But in malls across the country, the floor-to-ceiling glass storefront — a tradition of transparency in retailing that dates back at least 100 years — is beginning to give way to elaborate walls that make it impossible to see inside.

The outside of Ruehl No. 925, a new chain from Abercrombie & Fitch, is a brick facade that mimics the front of a townhouse. The exterior of its corporate sibling, a clothing store called Hollister, resembles a beach shack, its windows covered by wooden shutters. And the entrance to Martin & Osa, a new retailer from American Eagle Outfitters, is a long wooden wall with a thin strip of dark blue glass.

The opaque storefront, for now confined to a handful of clothing retailers, represents a remarkable shift in the relationship between merchants and consumers. Mall retailers have always relied on eye-catching windows, painstakingly redecorated every season, to attract the broadest possible range of consumers.

But as retail companies race to open new chains that serve ever-smaller slices of the population — Abercrombie & Fitch has four different stores, each for approximately a decade of life — they are using storefronts cloaked in wood and brick to ward off those who do not belong inside (and whose presence might diminish the shopping experience of those who do).

If the plate-glass windows say hello, the walls that are replacing them say go away.

The results are at times comical. With no windows to peer into, consumers sometimes walk into the new stores, discover they are in the wrong chain — wrong gender, wrong stage of life and the wrong fashion sensibility — and promptly race out.

Marc Caudill, who is 50 and a conservative dresser, stopped into the Ruehl at a mall in suburban Virginia recently looking for clothes and was overwhelmed by loud, pulsating music, a staff of skimpily dressed teenagers and stacks of T-shirts that read “Friday is casual sex day.”

A helpful employee told him the store was for college students and pointed him to the door. “The problem,” said Mr. Caudill, standing outside the store, “is that you really had to guess what it was until you got in.”

Retail executives say that by drawing the curtain over their storefronts, they can stand out in mall corridors crowded with glass-encased competitors. The modern mall, said Michele Martin, the head women’s clothing designer at Martin & Osa, “is too transparent, too naked. It’s just a sea of clothing.”

Intrigued by a store they cannot see into, consumers walk in to solve the mystery and stay to shop, executives said.

That, at least, is what Alessandra Conti, 16, and her classmate Michelle Palotta, 17, did when they saw Ruehl for the first time at a mall in Paramus, N.J.

“We said, ‘Oh, what is this?’ ” said Ms. Conti. “And so we had to go in.”

“It has this cool apartment vibe,” said Ms. Palotta. “Instead of being in Bergen County in the middle of New Jersey, we are on a street in New York, and that is where we want to be anyway — living in New York City.”

The trend toward shades and shutters, however, flies in the face of more than a century of architectural history.

From the early days of the American department store, merchants favored glass storefronts, not only because they showcased products, but also because glass was less expensive than steel or iron.

As the middle class swelled after World War II, even the highest-end stores used wide windows to compete for the attention of a new consumer “that had both the money and the time to look and dream,” said Paco Underhill, the author of a book about shopping called “Why We Buy” and the founder of Envirosell, a retail consulting firm.

Stately urban stores like Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue, and eventually cheaper mall-based retailers like Gap and J. Crew, turned the window into an art form, spending millions on temporary installations that recreated movie scenes and holiday folklore.

Then came the glass-shattering Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2000, the chain began experimenting with an opaque exterior when it introduced Hollister, a clothing store geared toward high school students.

The outside of the store evokes a California surf shack whose residents have shuttered the windows and hidden the front door to keep out the riffraff.

Or, as Tom Lennox, the director of communication at Abercrombie & Fitch put it: “You can feel yourself on the beach with the sunlight shining through.” (The sunlight being, in this case, the fluorescent mall lights.)

Hollister proved an immediate success, so Abercrombie & Fitch extended the darkened storefront to its namesake stores, placing heavy wooden shades over the existing glass windows.

Finally, there was Ruehl, by far the starkest-looking storefront in the American mall: a brick wall, rising up behind cast-iron gates and guarded at all times by an employee — or, a “model,” as Abercrombie aptly calls its young workers.

Andrew McQuilkin, vice president of design at FRCH Design Worldwide, which designs stores for dozens of retailers from Target to Tiffany’s, said the Abercrombie storefronts amount to a barrier.

“They are sending a message early in the conversation that says you belong or you don’t belong.”

In the case of Ruehl, the 17-year-old girl who wants to live in New York belongs. The 50-year-old suburban dad does not.

All of which Abercrombie & Fitch freely admits. “We are not targeting middle-aged men,” said Mr. Lennox, the communications director. “To have them flee the store, that is fine with us.”

But there is a tradeoff. If consumers cannot window shop, as they have for decades, stores like Ruehl and Martin & Osa are less likely to lure mall walkers who are unfamiliar with the chain.

“They are shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to new customers, and new customers are so critical,” said Marshal Cohen, the chief retail analyst at NPD Group, a retail research firm. At the Tysons Corner Center mall in McLean, Va., just outside Washington, several customers said the exterior of the first Martin & Osa, two 18-foot-wide walls of American cypress, made them think it was a spa, not a clothing store aimed at sporty, 30-something shoppers.

“We are all so busy that, unless I am buying milk, I need a window to get me inside,” said 42-year-old Mercedes Campus, as she walked straight past Martin & Osa.

For that reason, architects do not expect the American mall to be transformed into a mini-city with row after row of mock townhouses. Opaque storefronts, they note, could prove disastrous for retailers that must appeal to multiple generations.

But the influence of stores like Ruehl is clearly rippling across the industry.

A new chain for women in their 30s, called Janeville, from the children’s apparel retailer Gymboree, mimics a cottage, with a white picket fence and a slate roof.

Retailers said the mysterious storefronts — and the members-only, clubby environment they generate — create a powerful identity that eventually reaches their desired customers, one way or another.

“It’s just like that velvet rope in front of the nightclub,” said Mr. Underhill, the author and retail consultant. “It makes people even more anxious to go inside and look.”

Kate Alison, 16, said there was no reason to window shop at Hollister, one of her favorite chains — not when the hallways of her Virginia high school served as a billboard for the store.

“Everyone I know wears it,” she said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company