By  on October 16, 2006

Fifth Avenue is in the midst of an identity crisis.

Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany grace the famed intersection at 57th Street. Well-heeled shoppers wrapped in Burberry and Ralph Lauren clutch baby blue shopping bags and meander through Bulgari, Gucci, Versace, Cartier and, at the end of a short walk, can skate in and out of the chic Saks Fifth Avenue, at 50th Street.

Yet just a few blocks further downtown, just beyond the reaches of Saks, the avenue takes a drastic turn to the inelegant.

In the upper 50s, shoppers spend thousands on jewelry and designer clothes. Retailers spend an equal amount to gain access to those shoppers, investing upward of $1,000 a square foot to secure space on the avenue. According to Colliers Inter­national's 2006 retail real estate report, Fifth Avenue in the 50s remains the single most expensive retail street in the United States, with the average rent increasing by $50 a square foot in the past year.

Even as the price point of the merchandise lowers a bit, the stores in the lower 50s on Fifth Avenue remain upscale. Kenneth Cole and a H&M flagship adorn Rockefeller Center, while Lacoste stretches the reaches of luxury to the southwest corner of 49th Street.

The streetscape changes in the 40s.

The popular Build-A-Bear dominates 46th Street, while athletic apparel stores such as Journeys and Fossil and fast-food restaurants occupy the remaining length of Fifth down to 42nd Street. And with a few exceptions, beyond 42nd Street remains the sphere of cheap electronics stores, cramped delis, discount fashions and tourists more likely to be wearing "I Love N.Y." T-shirts than an Hermès scarf.

The days of the underretailed lower Fifth Avenue, however, are numbered. Though retail rents are a mere quarter of the rents on the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue, at roughly $250 a square foot, according to brokerage Newmark Knight Frank Retail, they are on the rise. New residential and commercial developments are starting to take hold in a streetscape currently dominated by vendors selling 99 cent stamps and "cashmere" pashminas, and more upscale retail is sure to follow.

"There is really no good reason why that stretch of retail from the 40s down to the Empire State Building isn't a viable shopping district, except that it's been neglected," said Jeffrey Roseman, executive vice president of Newmark Knight Frank. "The traffic is as strong there as any other part of the city. There's enough office density and a growing residential market."

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