By Sarah Trefethen
Maybe it’s time for the International Council of Shopping Centers to change its name.
Over the past decade, retailers have gone from shunning the city streets to paying top dollar for an urban toehold for their brand.
And the Brooklyn-born fashion retailer-turned developer-turned real estate consultant Joe Sitt thinks he can take some credit for the shift. Sitt founded Ashley Stewart, a clothing chain that caters to plus-size women, in the 1990s, and made other investments in retailers that cater to a city-dwelling clientele.
“All of these retail businesses that were focused on the major metropolitan, denser, urban markets… people started seeing our success and people started saying ‘You know what, maybe New York City’s not such a terrible place to have a retail store’,” Sitt told Real Estate Weekly.
In one particularly not-so-terrible part of New York, on Fifth Avenue between 54th and 55th streets, Sitt’s Thor Equities recently signed a lease with the fashion designer Valentino for a rumored $3,000 psf.
Thor Equities is one of New York’s most prolific investors and developers, with interests from SoHo to Coney Island. But in a recent interview, Sitt’s attention was focused on his newest venture: Thor High Street Advisors, an international brokerage and consulting firm poised to spread the gospel of city-style retail around the world.
The company represents tenants, including European retailers interested in entering new markets, and also advises landlords in other areas with urban aspirations.
“We obviously see our Thor banners throughout New York City and most major metropolitan cities throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America,” Sitt said.
“But we also do some projects for Westfield and help them with Garden State Plaza, where they want to bring in a more urban mix of tenants, even though some would say Paramus is suburban. And we also do Disney World, down in Orlando, Florida, where they want to expand by a half a million square feet. We’re doing some advisory work to help them get a more urban tenant base, the kind of flagship tenants you’d see in a major streetscape.”
Those tenants have very particular requirements.
“A lot of the newer tenants coming out of Europe, as an example, they’re not interested in going into the suburban space.
You’re not going to find them in a mall in Oklahoma, North Dakota, even though both markets might be booming today because of the oil and gas business.
“It’s not only luxury. Uniqlo — they’re not interested in going to more suburban, dispersed markets. They want and appreciate the value of density,” Sitt said. “Ralph Lauren wants a little tighter density.”
The city boy wasn’t ready with any advice for a hypothetical Oklahoman developer who might want to change the state’s image, but his primary concern seemed to be people per square foot.
“Sometimes it’s a mallish kind of feeling, like a Bal Harbor has a darn good density, but most cases it’s street moderate and street luxury,” he said.
Thor High Street brokers from New York and London will be at ICSC’s RECon in Las Vegas next week, focused on building their business and establishing the company as an entity on its own, out of the shadow of Thor Equities, according to Melissa Gliatta, executive vice president at Thor High Street.
They are looking for tenants for Garden State Plaza and projects in Philadelphia, and always seeking out hot new trends.
Preparing for RECon “requires us really working the phones and kind of hunting and pecking and looking for new retailers, whether it’s reading fashion magazines or checking the blogs or looking for who’s emerging on the scene,” Gliatta said.
Some New York brokers emphasize the networking aspects of this week’s show, but Sitt said he’s looking to do more than shake hands.
“For global guys that are making things happen, it’s happening there,” Sitt said. “We’re not there just for schmoozing. We’re there to do business.”