A Tale of Two Main Streets

Walked down Palmer Avenue in the Village of Larchmont recently? Only a few months ago, there were 17 vacant stores, spooking residents, shopkeepers, and local leaders alike. Last summer, there were so many “for rent” signs that even the New York Times took notice in a July 30 story entitled “Empty Spots in a Norman Rockwell Downtown.” Now, there are only 10 vacancies and signs of recovery and renewal are apparent on every block.

It has been a long road. Larchmont’s average income of around $154,000 did not immunize the downtown from a rash of store closings after the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Most alarming were five large vacancies on one block in the heart of the downtown: the venerable Larchmont Store (2008), Active Sports (February 2009), and Natural Identity Hair Salon (October 2009), followed by Plaza Too and Lorilyn & Co. (January 2010).

Perhaps Palmer Avenue’s troubles were no worse than those of many other downtowns, but so many closings in such a short time in the most heavily trafficked block of a small village caused something of a panic. The first failures may have been caused by bad timing, bad times, and competition from the Internet, chain stores, and big-box discounters. But as large stores went dark, foot traffic dropped even further, causing more stress on neighboring businesses—and a domino effect ensued. A few blocks away, in Larchmont’s second business district along Boston Post Road, the great recession hit almost as hard as on Palmer, but more stores were able to hold on—perhaps because rents were never as high, or perhaps because lower rents attracted a healthier mix of retail, services, and food establishments.

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Their confidence shaken, more than 75 residents, officials, and business owners gathered about a year ago for a brainstorming session hosted by the Larchmont Chamber of Commerce. Then-Mayor-Elect Joshua Mandell said shoring up the business district was his top priority. Participants drew up a long to-do list for Chamber members, landlords, government, and residents, such as better communication and marketing (Chamber); greater flexibility on parking and code enforcement (village); and more slack on rents and types of businesses (landlords). Residents were urged, reminded, and scolded to “shop local” if they didn’t want their downtown to turn into a ghost town.
Since that call to action, the mayor has generated positive press at ribbon-cuttings for every new business, joined the mayors of Mamaroneck and Rye to promote a statewide initiative to spend “$25 on the 25th” of the month in each downtown area, and strutted the runway at the Junior League’s “Shop. Local. Fall Fashion Show.” The Village Board has committed to making major improvements on Palmer Avenue—expecting to use $685,000 in federal funds and other grants to spend what will likely be over $2 million on new sidewalks, curbs, street furniture, and lighting. And the mayor revived a dormant Business District Improvement Committee (BDIC), now led by village trustee Jaine Elkind Eney. The BDIC is reviewing all the local codes, with an eye towards rationalizing rules and making them easier to enforce. It is also thinking practical and small. “We know times are tough,” Eney says, “but there are things we can do at no or low cost,” like removing old flyers or power-washing awnings. Mayor Mandell says, “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to get the word out that Larchmont is open for business.”

Businesses do seem to be listening. Whereas the village had a reputation for being difficult for new businesses seeking information or wanting to renovate spaces, now Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Rosenberg says, “We’ve had much more cooperation from the village government.” As for the Chamber, “We gained a lot of momentum from that brainstorming session,” Rosenberg says. There’s a new Chamber board, a new website, and a number of new committees. Another group organized holiday activities for every weekend in December.

So, how is all of this working? Things appear to be looking up. “There seems to be a lot more movement than there was six months ago,” says Frank Blasi, Larchmont’s building inspector. “And a lot more inquiries,” he says, for everything from food establishments to hair salons to clothing stores.

A number of Palmer-area vacancies have been filled. Three new food-related businesses have opened: Chatsworth Deli & Bakery last August, Red Mango in October, and HomeMade Pizza Co. in December. Creative Trendz has moved into the former Luggage Stop; the children’s music program Groove is taking over the old Buck’s Pharmacy; and Stephanie Kole, who managed Lorilyn’s before it closed, has opened her own girls’ clothing shop—known as Stephanie’s Kloset—two blocks away. Additionally, The Voracious Reader is expanding and adding a tea room, and a newly constructed day spa (Larchmont Laser Medical Spa) has opened on the eastern edge of the downtown. On the western end, Palmer Plaza is being spruced up, and two empty spots are undergoing extensive renovations. There’s a new pet food and supplies shop (Chow-Down Discount Pet Foods) and a new martial arts school (Excel Martial Arts).

Despite the bumper crop of new businesses, at the end of 2010, there were still 10 vacancies out of 105 shops in the Palmer core. The more vibrant downtown may be in the village’s second business district—which comprises roughly the square block of Larchmont Avenue, Wendt Avenue, Chatsworth Avenue, and Boston Post Road—where only five shops were empty out of 109. The Post Road area was once a retail desert compared to Palmer, but its combination of lower rents and a streetscape renovated in 2004 has drawn more apparel shops to a healthier mix of businesses focused on food, home improvement, and services.

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There are no hard data on comparative commercial rent rates, and each shop has unique qualities, but the general consensus is that Post Road is a relative bargain. Eric Newland of Designer One at 139 Larchmont Avenue says he moved from Palmer earlier in the decade to avoid a doubling of his rent. More recently, Carlos Rodriguez of Palmer Art made a similar journey, landing at 141 Larchmont Avenue; he says he had been paying around $45 to $50 per square foot and is now down within the $35 range.

Recently, rents have come down and landlords have grown more flexible, which has helped to fill vacancies or keep struggling stores open. Allan Goldhammer, whose family has owned commercial property in Larchmont for more than 60 years, said he cut the rent at 108 Chatsworth by 15 percent and “even then it took a couple of years” to find a new tenant with a viable business for the old Buck’s Pharmacy slot. Of course, the recent easing of Palmer’s woes is partly due to the larger financial picture, which is rosier, if not as pink as before the 2008 meltdown. Westchester County sales tax revenues peaked at $363 million in 2008, falling $38 million in 2009. For 2010, they’ve recovered $19 million (based on third quarter data), which is still $19 million below 2008’s figures.

Yet, it’s still an uphill slog. Shop owners are coping by keeping a tight grip on their belts, and by using ingenuity and collaboration with other businesses and the community. “People—the smart ones—are looking at their inventories and bringing in different price points,” says Lynda LaMonte Garmong, who blogs about Larchmont at LyndaLarch 10538 and is a new Chamber board member. She cites Clutch, a new handbag and accessory store at 1905 Palmer, where “anyone who walks in can find something in their budget.” Outerluxe, the luxury outerwear boutique at 1951 Palmer, still carries Post Card down coats—at $1,000 and up—but now there’s also Snow Image, from the same Italian supplier, at $400 to $500. Upscale women’s fashions are the raison d’être of Eric Newland’s Designer One. But now there are fewer $500 designer dresses and $800 jackets draping his sharp-hipped mannequins. He still seeks out unique items, many from smaller designers in order to stave off competition from the Internet and the department stores. But now, he says, “almost everything in the store is below two-hundred dollars.” Newland was one of the first to detect a change in the winds of fortune. “Main Street knows, before Wall Street,” Newland notes. By spring 2009, his business had declined 45 percent. To stay afloat, he let go of all seven employees, maximized his credit line, and filled his credit cards.

Downsizing is another strategy that’s helped. Rodriguez of Palmer Art not only decreased his rent by going from Palmer to Post, but reduced his monthly bill by fitting into a smaller space. His costs are down, and his business is up. “Foot traffic is much better in the whole Post Road area,” he says. Andrea Assael of Avenue P, a women’s fashion boutique with a Brooklyn sensibility, closed her roomy 26 Chatsworth Avenue shop in 2008, reopening in 2010 in a much smaller, less expensive location at 2105 Boston Post Road. (Meanwhile, Palombo Pastry Shop, which took over her Chatsworth spot, closed on November 28.)

A few Larchmont business owners have moved completely “off the grid,” saving on rent by working from home, marketing via the Internet, or switching away from retail into consulting. That’s where Carol E. Charny is for now. “When the sales aren’t there and the rent stays the same, you just have to close,” she says. She shuttered her furniture shop—known as Carol E. Charny Vintage—at 1905 Palmer and today provides in-home design consultation and sells furnishings online.

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In 2009, Marjatta Rautionmaa closed Scandecor Rugs at 1999 Palmer. Now, she is consulting, wholesaling for show rooms, and selling via the web at scandecor.net

In stark contrast, shops that went the other way—expanding or moving into pricier digs—are today shuttered. Lorilyn & Co., a high-end children’s clothing store at 1935 Palmer, opened a baby store next door in 2008: both stores closed in January 2010. Plaza Too, at 1924 Palmer, expanded up-county and into New York City; the entire chain began shutting down in January. Renee Powell sold her jewelry from a tiny store known as Michou on Post Road. She moved to a roomier spot at 1934 Palmer in 2008 and expanded into gifts. This spring, she closed the store and took her inventory online at michouny.com.

Jim Staropoli of Active Sports at 1921 Palmer, says his downfall began in 2008 when he stretched to acquire, transform, and save The Larchmont Store at 1914 Palmer, a beloved five and dime losing out to CVS across town. Overwhelmed, he consolidated the two stores, but after a 30-percent recession-related drop in sales, “I basically lost my working capital. I had to shut my door.”

Long-time storeowners miss having the wide variety of businesses that once kept shoppers in town to fill their needs. “The synergy of the core has changed forever in our village,” mourns Designer One’s Newland. Yet others see a new synergy evolving. Rodriguez is delighted with the mix near his frame shop. “The hair salons around me bring in a crowd; the schools bring in a crowd, and the restaurants bring in their crowds—it feels like an outdoor mall where you can get all your needs taken care of.”

And businesses are creating their own synergy: Palmer Avenue fragrance boutique Szent and Co. created a special cotton candy scent for Sweet Teez, the candy shop on Larchmont Avenue. Francine Lucidon, owner of The Voracious Reader on Palmer, linked with Anna Maria’s Restaurant on Chatsworth for a prix-fixe dinner with the author of Georgia’s Kitchen; the event was sold out. “It’s locals supporting locals,” Lucidon says. “We can’t be asking the community to support local businesses if we aren’t supporting each other.”

Judy Silberstein, the former publisher of the online news journal Larchmont Gazette, has lived and shopped in Larchmont since 1979.

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