NEW YORK — If there’s any indicator that an emerging retail neighborhood is about to explode, Cynthia Rowley imagines it might be her arrival on the scene.
That is not to be taken as an egotistical statement about Rowley’s perception of her own retailing prescience, but rather her history of landing prime real estate just before rents skyrocket out of reach. Her latest deal — putting down what sources estimated to be $3 million of her own money to acquire a five-story brownstone at 376 Bleecker Street — comes as several big-name designers are exploring a stretch of the West Village that was pioneered by Marc Jacobs three years ago, where rents are creeping up into the range of $80 to $120 per square foot.
Rowley plans to open her fifth U.S. store there by Nov. 1 in a 1,100-square-foot space on the street level that is currently unoccupied. Just as Rowley was closing on the deal to buy the building, Polo Ralph Lauren said this month it would open a small women’s store at 380 Bleecker Street on Sept. 6, joining Jacobs’ three stores, Lulu Guinness and the new scene restaurant Hue within the two-block radius.
“I wanted to find a space on Bleecker Street because I thought it was the only neighborhood where I could actually afford to buy something,” said Rowley, noting the retail location is the first where she will be her own landlord. “I’ve been interested in real estate as a hobby for a while, because I believe you can build equity in your store by owning it. Every time I open a store, it’s just in the nick of time before the rents explode, so I’m always nervous that the hotter the neighborhood would get, the higher my rent would go. This is a nice relief.”
Rowley said she would maintain her SoHo store at 108 Wooster Street, as well as locations on Main Street in East Hampton, N.Y.; Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Los Angeles on Melrose Avenue, all of which are operated in leased spaces.
As for Bleecker Street, “It’s like this beautiful corridor from the Meatpacking District to SoHo,” she said. “The Meatpacking district is a great destination shopping area, but there really isn’t much residential, and I’ve really tried to build up a neighborhood clientele with each of my shops.”Where Hudson Street closes to downtown traffic just below 14th Street, Bleecker Street serves as an artery for much of the traffic coming from the northern neighborhoods of Chelsea and Midtown on its way through to Greenwich Village and SoHo. Bleecker is also the most direct route for pedestrians making their way west toward the Meatpacking district or the recently revitalized Hudson River Park, making the street increasingly desirable to retailers.
So much so that when Rowley began to look for a site, she found very few rentable spaces and none that were for sale.
“I started asking everyone I knew if they lived in the West Village and knew of a building for sale,” said Rowley, who then made an important connection while preparing a campaign for her other line of business, the Swell line of home products designed for Target Stores. “It wasn’t until we starting shooting that original Target commercial that one of the actors said his landlord also managed a building on Bleecker Street between Perry and Charles, so I said, let’s call her now.”
The building was not for sale, but the owner agreed to show it to Rowley anyway. The designer persistently inquired about its availability — on a daily basis, she said — and when the leases of the building’s remaining tenants coincidentally expired, a deal was finally made. “I stalked her until she basically wanted to get rid of me,” Rowley said.
Rowley said she had not determined her plans for the remaining floors of the building.
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