The staff of Motif Designs
A movement is afoot to turn old lofts, defunct factories, and abandoned warehouses into shops and showrooms in Mount Vernon’s nascent design and decorating district.
Pointing to the light pouring in through a wall of translucent glass block in her company’s office area, Lyn Peterson, president and creative director of Motif Designs, declares, “This sealed the deal.” The glass block, coupled with seemingly miles of exposed brick walls, soaring ceilings, and 15,000 square feet of “reasonably priced” space, convinced Peterson to move her 32-year-old home-furnishings and interior-design firm from New Rochelle to an old former manufacturing plant in Mount Vernon four years ago.
Happily, she discovered a number of other home-décor businesses and showrooms in the area, all lured by funky commercial real estate, namely old lofts, former warehouses, and long-dormant factories—renting for about $13 to $17 per square foot, as compared to the overall county average of more than $26 per square foot. Throw in easily accessible highways and good mass transportation—the city has three Metro-North stations—plus an appreciation for fine historic architectural details, and it’s easy to see why this still-gritty area has become so attractive.
Josh Tane moved his 19-year-old antiques business, Adams Unlimited, Inc., to Mount Vernon in 1993. A convenient location was key for Tane, who sells estate and other vintage furnishings from a 2,000-square-foot warehouse—formerly used as a giant walk-in freezer for a food-services company. “I wasn’t looking for a high-end retail area such as Scarsdale or White Plains,” he says, “but rather a blue-collar area with a lot of warehouse space.”
A newer neighbor is Robin Harmon-Myers’s 3,500-square-foot Harmony Designs Furniture & Interiors, located on busy South Fourth Avenue, also home to such longtime Mount Vernon businesses as the 65-year-old Westchester Fabrics. “The commercial real estate was so affordable that it just made sense to purchase,” says Harmon-Myers. “The buildings may be unkempt now, but they are quite beautiful.”
In 2008, Peterson even organized a group of complementary neighboring businesses, including Walker Zanger, the nation’s leading distributor of natural stone; the 83-year-old Consolidated Plumbing, the county’s oldest Kohler showroom; Dal Tile, the largest American manufacturer and distributor of ceramic tile; and Furniture Restoration Center to promote the new “Mt V Design District.” But, she admits, challenges remain.
One challenge—which Peterson hopes to address via a website featuring a map and directory—is that businesses are scattered throughout the area. Another, steep parking rates, was tackled by the city’s chamber of commerce. “We had exorbitant on-street parking fees,” admits Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce President Frank T. Fraley, president of Noah Consulting, a real estate consulting firm located here. “Working with the City Council, we were able to have them lowered to make the area even more attractive for businesses.”
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But, while Fraley’s group and the city hope to entice more décor businesses, one relatively recent transplant is contemplating moving out. Donghia, Inc., the luxury home-furnishings company that relocated its worldwide corporate headquarters from SoHo to a 45,000-square-foot former Consumer Reports laboratory in 2002, is thinking about returning to Manhattan. “We have a beautiful, old space within walking distance to the train, and we certainly get a lot for our money,” says Marketing Manager Lindsey Morris. “But due to staff cuts and relocations, we don’t need all this space now. And sometimes,” she adds, “you do feel a little too detached from the rest of the industry.”