By  on September 28, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Joan McNamara moved her gourmet deli and market to Third Street here from New York about 10 years ago when an evolution of the nondescript thoroughfare into one of the city's more eclectic and desirable shopping destinations seemed a bit far-fetched.

But the price was right and McNamara, whose Joan's on Third has since become an attraction of sorts for its cupcakes, homemade mac 'n' cheese and turkey meat loaf, was enticed by the street life that helped make the area friendly for that rare Los Angeles species, the pedestrian. It reminded her of home.

"I just loved the mix of people and that it's a walking neighborhood," said McNamara, whose shop has attracted Kirsten Dunst, Reese Witherspoon and designer Giambattista Valli. "It's a little bit of New York."

The 1-mile shopping thoroughfare sandwiched between two major malls, Beverly Center to the west and The Grove to the east, is no longer a sleepy dead end. It is, instead, a premier home to boutiques such as Trina Turk, Sigerson Morrison, Scout and Satine; housewares shops Room Service, Zipper and OK, and eateries beloved by hard-core foodies such as Joan's, Toast and AOC.

Many retailers agreed it's primarily the street's New York sensibility that wooed them, not to mention affordability, at least for now.

Chuck Dembo, a real estate broker with Dembo & Associates, which handles retail leases throughout Los Angeles, said rents of $3 to $4 a square foot are alluring compared with $10 and climbing on Robertson Boulevard.

"And it's the uniqueness of the merchants, stores you can't find in other parts of the city and the fact that there's no chain stores like the Gap," he said.

The street's appeal to many in the entertainment business is helping to propel it as a go-to locale for the paparazzi. Boutique owner Hillary Rush opened her eponymous store in April and already Us magazine ran a photo of Mischa Barton outside the store toting one of Rush's shopping bags.

"The street has been phenomenal from a sales standpoint," said Rush, former West Coast director of sales for LuLu Guinness. When the British handbag and luggage brand moved out of its 1,000-square-foot space, Rush decided to stay and put out her own sign."While there is conspicuous consumption in this area, it's not as over-the-top as Beverly Hills and Robertson [Boulevard]," she said.

The range at Hillary Rush runs from moderately priced basics to Chaiken and Imitation of Christ. She credited Toast — the always-packed cafe with an overflow of sidewalk seating — with helping to boost traffic in her store.

"I couldn't be luckier with those long waits [for a table]," she said.

Affordability also has been a key factor, Rush said, citing sales that are above plan.

"I thought about the Los Feliz area [on Los Angeles' east side] because I thought that was all I could afford,'' she said. "I thought I was capped [priced] out on Third Street."

The look of the storefronts lured designer and store owner Trina Turk.

"I love modern architecture and for me it was about finding a building that I liked," Turk said of her 3,300-square-foot location. "I wanted to find something that had a little bit of architectural integrity."

Although Turk said she likes the mix of edgy retailers and small businesses, she would like to see the area spruced up.

"If I had my choice, I wouldn't choose to have an auto body shop next door," she said.

Ryan Conder, co-owner of the South Willard boutique, agreed that Third Street is distinctive.

"It was one of the last streets we found in Los Angeles where the buildings had integrity and there were no chains," he said. "It seemed really optimistic for small shops."

Conder also acknowledged that being next to AOC, a culinary hot spot, has increased the visibility factor of his store.

Unlike Rush, however, who draws walk-in traffic, Conder's store has become a destination location for customers hunting for the lines he carries: Bernhard Willhelm, Bruno Pieters, Rachel Comey, Zucca, Mary Ping and Alexandre Herchcovitch.

"The Grove has really helped the street's visibility," Dembo said of the popular outdoor lifestyle center on the corner of Third and Fairfax Avenues. Despite being heavy on chains such as Barnes & Noble, Gap and Anthropologie, The Grove has won fans with its charming atmosphere and graceful incorporation of the 71-year-old Farmer's Market .While proximity to high-traffic malls has helped create buzz about Third Street, many retailers acknowledged that customers shopping the chains usually are not trawling the boutiques.

"We don't get spillover from centers, but there's foot traffic and business has been fantastic," said Greg Armas, owner of Scout, which carries a range of styles from Vivienne Westwood to Jeremy Scott to Gray Ant. "The type of clientele we have deals with more forward fashion'' than apparel sold at shopping malls.

But for all excitement about growth, retailers such as Armas conceded there is much work to be done.

"In my opinion, the city is totally missing the beat on Third Street," he said. "It's not inviting ... They need to make it more accessible and like a public domain with things like trash bins."

And then there's parking. Designer Turk, who has five spaces behind her store, leased space on a billboard atop the building and one on nearby Beverly Boulevard to tout them.

Cory Powell, owner of The Parlour salon, which counts Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz and Kim Basinger among its high-profile customers, hired a valet parking service, but would like to see the city put in a garage. "I also think they should have put more trees in. It's not so attractive."

The lack of a neighborhood association has been a hurdle, said McNamara, who has been trying to patch one together.

"We don't have parking, but we're here and I think we need to move ahead even without that, because it's a great neighborhood."

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