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Is Downtown Retail "Stalled?"

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, April 30, 2009, at 03:26PM
Crack Gallery -- 204 W. 6th Eric Richardson [Flickr]

Shirts hang on a rack at Crack Gallery, a clothing store on 6th street that opened in 2008.

"The recession has crashed the downtown party conceived for this car-obsessed city, short-circuiting a major push for retail." That's the opinion of influential fashion voice Womens Wear Daily, which yesterday published a lengthy look at Downtown's retail climate.

The story, available online for subscribers only, focuses on trouble in the development market, mentioning a half dozen major projects that haven't been able to make it into construction.

Much was made of the Downtown Center BID's recently-published demographic numbers, but the article sounds a cautious note on retailer acceptance.

Merchants, however, have not been persuaded there is a critical mass of full-time downtown residents. “The national retailers do not accept those numbers; they don’t feel it is an unbiased survey,” said CB Richard Ellis senior vice president Mark Tarczynski, adding they rely on 2000 census figures estimating downtown’s population at 6,000.

In addition, potential locations often are oddly shaped, not big enough, lack parking or loading space. As retailers cut back, those hurdles become tougher to jump over. “These guys are looking at location opportunities where they can just plop their footprint down with no fuss,” Tarczynski said. “Doing an urban store is a very difficult proposition.”

Despite its pessimistic headline, the end of the story paints a hopeful picture for the Historic Core, which it says "offers a model for retail not dependent on national brands."

Apparel stores are popping up in the area. San Francisco-based Upper Playground, which sells T-shirts decorated by artists, opened in Historic Downtown last May because it fit the nine-store chain’s urban attitude.

This month, Los Angeles-based brands Ed Hardy and Skin.Graft launched stores in Historic Downtown. Skin.Graft designer Jonny Cota said the area’s “combination of art and grunginess” appealed to him. “It is still a little scary, but you can do respectable things. “We made the move feeling confident that we would be able to bring our own customers here.”

Frances Giles, store manager Ed Hardy’s downtown outlet, acknowledged the brand doesn’t quite know the demographic for the store yet and will test different deals and events to pull in customers. “We are in a neighborhood that is definitely on the cusp,” she said. “We are willing to put in the time and effort to stick it out.”

I spoke to author Rachel Brown as she was researching this piece (and in fact get a quote in the story), and what I emphasized to her was that this growth in the Historic Core has really seemed to take off in the last few months. While the big stores may still be unconvinced on Downtown, it feels like we're seeing progress on street-level.

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