Inside 365 West 14th Street, three lonesome, white, overhead lights hang over a barren retail space. Further east, a passerby peers through the façade at 46 West 14th Street, uncovering little more than a few empty, wooden shelves inside the now defunct jewelry store, Gem Story.
The vacant spaces are hardly gems. A slew of “for rent” signs line West 14th Street, from Fifth Avenue all the way down through the Meatpacking District. The list of the fallen is curiously indiscriminate — a bookstore, a fashion retailer, a check-cashing company, an ethnic restaurant, a pawn shop, a comedy club.
“Fourteenth Street Deserves better,” said Isaac Glasman, director of retail leasing at Massey Knakal. “It’s one of the most trod-upon streets in the city.”
In all, there are 24 vacant retail spaces on West 14th currently available for lease, executives at Massey Knakal said; meanwhile, the Flatiron District, the “Ladies Mile Corridor,” Columbus Avenue and West 34th Street are brimming.
More than a decade ago, West 14th Street was looked upon as a center for low-end, discount stores. But things started to change in the early 2000’s, when stores like Guitar Center, Starbucks, Clay Fitness and New York Sports Clubs filtered into the area between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, kicking off the gentrification process that continues today.
“In between Fifth and Seventh (Avenues) you have a situation in which the retail is transitioning away from, say, the cut-rate goods, electronics, certain types of clothes, certain types of apparel,” Glasman said.
But some landlords have been resistant to change, holding out for rents that only discounters and fast-food chains are willing to pay. A broker who spoke anonymously to avoid further disgruntling his client said the space his company is handling between Sixth and Seventh Avenues has been empty for 8 months. The space is simply overpriced, along with some structural anomalies that make it less marketable, the broker said.
“You still have some vestiges of old-time landlords who are going to hold out for the most rent – and that’s letting a discounter or a sort of schlock tenant come in,” said Jeffrey Roseman, executive vice president and principal with Newmark Knight Frank’s retail division. “When landlords go and make deals with tenants like this it’s not good for the street – it’s just not good for the city. The retailers are just blights. They pay good rent, but when they have a guy standing outside on a milk crate with a megaphone telling people to come in for 99 cent socks, it sets the city back.”
The Meatpacking District has become one of the hottest markets in the city, if not in the country, Roseman added, but rents have “gotten out of control.” Rents there, between $350 to 400 per square foot, according to data from Massey Knakal, also have retailers questioning their bang for the buck.
The rates are rivaled only by West 34th Street, where there’s barely a vacant lot on the strip, said Benjamin Fox, executive vice president of retail leasing at Massey Knakal, at a briefing, adding that the demographic aim of retailers there is also changing.
“You’re seeing meatpacking is really trending to young people who wear size three, or whatever,” Fox said, pointing Stella McCartney’s flight from the area to SoHo as an example of the downside to the trend. “Why did she do that? She believed that SoHo has a wider audience. It also has an older audience.”
Though the Meatpacking District often steals the spotlight, the area between Fifth and Seventh Avenues is equally valuable, with heavy foot traffic and a diverse set of retailers. While the raw number of vacancies is high, some experts said they were optimistic the spaces would soon be filled, while others added that the number isn’t necessarily a reflection of the street’s overall health.
“It’s not troubling to me,” Roseman, from Newmark Knight Frank, said. “There aren’t many streets in the city that are as vibrant as West 14th – from Fifth all the way down.”
*this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 print edition of Real Estate Weekly