For a small thoroughfare, Bleecker Street has had many personas: For much of its modern life, it was a charming, tree-lined thoroughfare, dotted with antiques dealers and other businesses, until the early Aughts when, heralded by the opening of Marc Jacobs’ first boutique, it became fashion central. Designers such as Reiss, Maison Margiela, Coach, Zadig & Voltaire, Mulberry, Brooks Brothers Black Fleece and Comptoir des Cottoniers unveiled units, and Ralph Lauren opened multiple stores on the thoroughfare. The Internet, high rents and shifting consumer shopping habits took a toll on the once red-hot street, leaving dozens of empty spaces.
Brookfield Property Partners, sensing an opportunity at depressed prices, in the spring snapped up seven storefronts from New York REIT for an estimated $31.5 million. The deal left many in the real estate community scratching their heads and wondering why a company as large as Brookfield would take such an interest in Bleecker Street. Michael Goldban, senior vice president of retail leasing at Brookfield Properties, in an interview with WWD on Thursday, said that the project is something of an experiment.
“As retail people, and as a company, we love being around innovators because we learn a lot from them,” Goldban said. “We see it as a home for the future of the retail industry. We want to find budding entrepreneurs and give them a platform and hone the brick-and-mortar shopping experience.
“The strategy here is consistent with our global strategy, which boils down to place-making,” Goldban said, comparing Bleecker Street with Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Los Angeles and the Design District in Miami. “Usually we go to markets and create new places or re-create places. Bleecker is already a great place. It’s not merchandised in a sustainable way, but it already means something to people.”
Goldban said fashion “is a really important part of this. We’ll see a lot of digitally native brands and young entrepreneurs trying to reinvent whatever part of fashion. There were great brands here, but it got a little too commercial. What will make Bleecker Street sustainable is if it’s about new brands.”
The first new tenant, Margaux, a digital footwear brand, will occupy a space with a short-term lease. “It has a real Millennial appeal and high design,” Goldban said. “They’re disruptors. It’s an anchor — well, maybe that’s a little bit much. It demonstrates the types of brands we’re looking for.” Margaux’s first retail concept bowed on Via Mizner in Palm Beach in 2016.
Goldban said there’s ongoing conversations with “all the Bleecker Street stakeholders to get them aligned with our vision. We’re bringing on other landlords that agree this is the right strategy for the street. One owner called us and said, ‘We’re going to do a deal with this brand’ and asked us what we thought. It was a fine brand, but we didn’t feel it was right for this street. We suggested, ‘Let’s merchandise this together.’”
In fact, Goldban wouldn’t mind more control over Bleecker Street and more spaces to bring a uniformity of quality to the tenants. “We bought at an attractive price, so there’s a lot of upward movement from where the rents are today to where they’ll be in a few years,” he said. “We would love to own more property on the street to get more scale, so if those opportunities arise, we’ll look at them.”
Leasing all or part of any street takes time, and Brookfield knows that empty storefronts are a turn-off to consumers. So, the company is programming temporary activations. Two artists from Chashama, an organization that supports artists, will create and display their works during a monthlong residency hosted by Arts Brookfield. They’ll also open their work spaces to visitors.
Another announcement about bringing art and culture to Bleecker Street includes a short-term licensing agreement with the Drilling Company, producer of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. “We’ve given them space and they’ll rehearse different Shakespeare works,” Goldban said. “It’s theater behind the glass. They’ll open their doors and you can walk in and talk to the actors.”
Members of the Drilling Company will rehearse for productions of the Bard’s classics such as “Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth,” which will have free public performances around the city. Starting today, the Drilling Company will allow the public to watch its auditions and preparations at its temporary Bleecker Street rehearsal studio.
Brookfield is also working with Skylight Studios, which will gather a group of innovators and leaders across lifestyle sectors, food, fashion and art for short-term pop-ups “with great diversity and forward-thinking innovative brands that will bring tremendous interest to the street,” Goldban said.
“We’re going to be hands-on,” Goldban said. “We’re not looking for the 50th store in a chain. We may not have the first. Maybe we’ll be the third. We want brands to have some experience with retail. Maybe they’ve done a pop-up. We don’t know who the winners and losers are going to be, but we’re going to give them this platform and let them roll.”