NEW YORK — It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken its toll on the retail landscape in New York City. Vacant storefronts have become commonplace, even in historically popular neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village and Madison Avenue.
But while the situation is definitely improving across the city, there’s one spot helping to lead the way: Rockefeller Center.
The quintessential New York City location — where ice skaters will soon twirl in front of the Christmas tree — is having a successful fall season with a number of stores openings. Among the latest additions are Freeman’s Sporting Club, Pineider, Kule, Y’all Mart and Eva Fahren. Coming in the next couple of weeks is Todd Snyder’s first Midtown location as well as a series of pop-ups, including one dedicated to the upcoming Winter Olympics from Sh*t That I Knit.
“Retail leasing is picking up steam like never before,” said Adelaide Polsinelli, vice chairman at Compass, a New York-based real estate firm. “The city is experiencing ‘The Great Awakening.’ People are back, tourists are back, office workers are back. This year alone, I sold 604 Fifth Avenue in Rockefeller Center for $45 million to a Japanese chocolatier for its flagship store, and 576 Fifth Avenue for $101 million to an international retailer. Both sales were for record prices. These buyers made big bets on the city’s retail future in this prime Midtown corridor. Retailers are rushing to take advantage of low rents during this tail end of the cycle, which is a time to double down. Retail rents have not been this low in almost a decade. Retailers with long-term vision are locking in long leases in prime locations so when this market roars back — which has already begun — they will be sitting pretty.”
While the picture at Rock Center is brightening, its reinvention actually started before the pandemic, according to EB Kelly, a managing director at Tishman Speyer who oversees Rockefeller Center, which is defined as spanning 48th to 51st Streets from Fifth to Sixth Avenues.
There is 650,000 square feet of total retail space in Rockefeller Center on street level, rink level, the side streets and the famed Channel Gardens, Kelly said.
“We started thinking about it pre-COVID-19 and what we’re seeing now is the fruits of a transformation of this iconic New York retail destination,” she said.
The stores, restaurants and experiences that are being added in advance of the holiday season are intended to reintroduce the location to native New Yorkers and encourage them to rediscover the “new energy” that has been injected into the space, Kelly said.
Although tourists have begun to trickle back into the city, international tourists have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Before the health crisis, tourists spent $47 billion annually, with half of that spending coming from international visitors. But this year, NYC & Company, the city’s tourism agency, is projecting visitor spending of about $24 billion, half of the 2019 total. The agency is also forecasting that 34.6 million people will visit this year, with 2.8 million coming from outside the country. That’s just slightly more than half the number who visited in 2019, according to The New York Times.
So Rockefeller Center’s focus on locals definitely seems like the right move.
Kelly said the retail component there “in large part had a fair amount of stability,” even during the pandemic. There was some turnover in some of the smaller spaces, she said, but the larger ones remained essentially intact. “We have a handful of vacancies, but it’s a small number,” she said. “But we have a range of options, whether you want 500 square feet in the Channel Gardens or 2,000 square feet on Fifth Avenue, we can offer things that are unusual and unexpected.”
Many of the additions are New York-based brands, including Dauphinette at 610 Fifth Avenue, the brand founded by Olivia Cheng that offers made-in-New York outerwear created from recycled and byproduct fur and leather, along with vintage and artisanal pieces including handbags, accessories and ready-to-wear.
Eva Fehren, a fine jewelry brand designed by Eva Zuckerman that is celebrating its 10th anniversary, has opened its first brick-and-mortar store at 620 Fifth Avenue in the North Channel Gardens. The New York-based brand designed the store with the support of local artists including flooring and finishes by Michelle Kole, jewelry cases by Youngbuk and stonework by PR Stone. It carries Eva Fehren jewelry along with lifestyle items from complementary brands.
Freemans Sporting Club, which was established in New York in 2005, relocated from its longtime home on the Lower East Side to 30 Rockefeller Plaza last month where it offers made-to-measure suits and shirts alongside sportswear, accessories, grooming products and home goods.
Also new to the center is Kule at 610 Fifth Avenue, a fashion brand created by Nikki Kule as a children’s collection in 2001 that has branched out into men’s and women’s wear. Luxury Italian heritage brand Pineider, which offers writing instruments and leather goods, opened its first U.S. store at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and Lingua Franca, which offers cashmere embroidered sweaters, a paper flower shop and a charm bar along with books and treats, opened at 50 Rockefeller Plaza.
Kelly said the addition of Lingua Franca came as a result of a park that was created on top of Radio City Music Hall. Called Radio Park, the half-acre space is intended to serve as a town square of sorts for tenants of Rockefeller Center and their guests. Adding Lingua Franca was seen as an added amenity, she said.
Part of the reinvention of Rock Center is a pop-up program called RC Capsule that made its debut during the last holiday season. The rotating spaces, which will be in place for six months, include Y’All Mart, a collective of Texas-based brands including Stag Provisions, Daughters and Far West, that will remain at 1250 Sixth Avenue through January, and a Jill Lindsey, Brooklyn-based apparel, footwear, textiles and home goods brand at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
On Nov. 18, Sh*t That I Knit, a Boston-based ethically sourced knitwear and accessories brand, will install a pop-up shop into an unused glass elevator across from the “Today” show plaza, which will carry its regular collection along with its officially licensed Team USA beanies and mittens for the upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics.
Still to come is Todd Snyder, the men’s wear designer, who will open his third New York City store at 620 Fifth Avenue in the middle of November. The location is seen as the prime spot for “a great flagship” for the brand, Chad Kessler, global brand president for American Eagle Outfitters, which owns the Todd Snyder brand, has said.
Kelly said that even as tourists continue to return to New York, Rockefeller Center’s ability to offer unique retail, dining and entertainment options — new restaurants include Dough doughnuts, Other Half brewery and Lodi as well as holiday-themed trucks in the esplanade — are intended to appeal to a wide range of people.
“Our strategy is that visitors want to go where New Yorkers are,” Kelly said. “They want authentic experiences. But we also want to make sure New Yorkers and office tenants are excited by Rockefeller Center. We want it to be great for everyone, that’s our focus.”