By Allyn Freeman
A walking tour of the West Village offers the sight of flowers that bloom in the spring but also the distressing proliferation of empty stores displaying “For Rent” or “For Lease” signs. Not in recent memory have there been so many vacant retail establishments in the neighborhood.
A first consideration is to cite the Village’s exorbitant retail rental costs, especially on Bleecker Street, from Hudson Street to 6th Avenue. This thoroughfare has become home to a ribbon of chic designer stores, resulting in a promenade for visiting shoppers. Former antique stores or small food markets were priced out of existence as landlords raised rents affordable only to luxury brand clothing chains.
Although it is true that local rents are high, the recent loss of so many stores is not confined to the West Village; it mirrors an ongoing national trend. Stores are closing everywhere in the country at a documented accelerated pace. The Wall Street Journal wrote that chain retailers (e.g., Sears, Macy’s, JC Penny, etc.) are on tap to shut down 9,000 locations in 2017. Add on the thousands of unrecorded mom-and-pop shops closing and the actual number indicates a burst bubble of retail expectations.
One of the main reasons for collapsing store business is the significant increase of online purchasing, which exceeded more than 10% of total national retail sales in 2016. The internet shopping experience, as exemplified by the giant Amazon, offers consumers a wide variety of items (many not available locally), comparison shopping, competitive prices, free shipping, and easy-to-follow methods for merchandise returns. Some estimates predict that by the year 2020, 50% of all U.S. households will hold an Amazon Prime account.
A tally of shuttered stores on Christopher Street from Hudson to Bleecker Streets reveals a total of eight “For Rent” or “For Lease” signs in the windows. On the south side of the street, east of Bedford Street, four of the five contiguous stores are empty. These visible closings indicate the decline of an area that once witnessed more prosperous days.
Further in the West Village, the northwest and southwest corners of Perry and Hudson Streets are empty. Also vacant is the large sports club space in the Archives Building that fronts Christopher and Greenwich Streets. Mrs. Green’s closed months ago, leaving another large retail area vacant on Hudson Street. Where or when will it end?
As onsite traffic shrinks from significantly fewer personal shopping visits by foot or by car, there is also a corresponding reduction in the purchase of other products from the mall or in the store. Decreased sales will result in worker layoffs and additional closings as brick-and-mortar establishments cut branches or go out of business.
If the trendy boutiques that currently line Bleecker Street experience substantial losses based on locations that prove unprofitable, will these chains stay or will they close shop? If they depart, who can afford the already high rents? Is the bleak commercial future for the West Village the specter of a retail ghost town of boarded up doors and empty shops?