WILLIAMSBURG, N.Y. — National and international specialty chains are rushing to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, like fast-fashion retailers jumping on the latest trends.
The neighborhood, with its charming tree-lined streets and homegrown nameplates, is on the expansion lists of many domestic and foreign brands. It’s even become a fashion show destination: Alexander Wang held his spring show at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during New York Fashion Week.
There’s a healthy inventory of stores and asking rents are below Manhattan prices, although that’s likely to change as the area becomes more gentrified. With the retail vacancy rate in Manhattan the lowest in the U.S., asking prices have risen to the highest in the nation and three times that of the next highest metropolitan area, Beverly Hills, according to Rockwood Real Estate Advisors.
What’s also driving retailers to Williamsburg and other Brooklyn environs are the demographics behind the young hipster couples and families with small children. There’s buying power in Williamsburg and chains are eager to tap into it. Residents have an average household income of $59,826 and a high level of education, with more professional school and doctorate degrees than Manhattan dwellers.
New residential development is on the rise, with some 3,000 apartment units expected to come on line in the next few years.
Prices for rentals are lower than Manhattan but still substantial; for example, 101 Bedford, a full-service luxury property, is asking $3,150 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, a one-bedroom at Avalon Bowery, a full-service building, is $4,615.
In October, Sandro opened a unit on North Sixth Street between Kent and Wythe Avenues. Maje, Sandro’s sister brand, is rumored to be taking a space nearby. Gant Rugger unveiled a store on the corner of North Sixth Street and Berry Street. The opening coincided with the launch of Gant’s Brooklyn Luxe collection.
An Urban Outfitters unit is under construction on North Sixth Street between Berry Street and Wythe Avenue. Joe Fresh, New York Sports Club and Citibank have been cited as potential tenants for a 150,000-square-foot retail development project at 242 North Bedford Avenue that will be anchored by Whole Foods.
Duane Reade and HSBC bank have taken locations on Bedford Avenue.
Pop-up shops are sprouting as designers test the Brooklyn waters. Robert James had a short-term lease on Bedford Avenue before moving to permanent digs on Bedford Avenue and Driggs Street in November.
Independents such as Grace and Favor are opening on Grand Street. The shop, which has a refined hippie aesthetic, is run by owner Andrea B., who is also a resident of the neighborhood. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she said. “I love the variety and cosmopolitan-ness. We had the idea that it was very young and very hipster. It’s not like that. We have a lot of European [customers]. Williamsburg is known universally in guide books.”
Of the gentrification, Andrea said, “It’s interesting when you see brands like Sandro and Gant.” She recalled that the area was “an industrial wasteland,” which she believes allowed it to evolve with “more creative possibilities.”
Bird, a key Brooklyn fashion resource since 2009, operates three units in the borough. Its de facto flagship, which sells 3.1 Phillip Lim, Isabel Marant, Madewell, Tucker, Equipment, Maria Cornejo and others, is on Grand Street. “It’s changed continuously since I got here,” said manager Jack Sachs. “Williamsburg is full of tourists. We see this on a regular basis, and tourists are venturing further and further from the Bedford Avenue subway stop. A tourist from Korea knows all of our designers.”
Brooklyn, however, should not be confused with Manhattan — at least, not yet. “Business is inconsistent,” Sachs said. “When it’s busy, it’s hard to tell Williamsburg from St. Marks Place.” But that’s not always the case. Also, retail has a different rhythm in Brooklyn. “We start out later,” Sachs said, noting that the store operates from noon to 8 p.m. on weekdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 7 p.m. on Sundays. “Our stores are reflective of the neighborhood. We see ourselves as Brooklyn-bred. As the neighborhood changes, we’ll change with it. The goal really is to be a place where everyone feels comfortable.”
Brooklyn Denim Co. on North Third Street is another born and bred local retailer. “The area has changed a lot,” said Frank Pizzurro, founder of the 2,400-square-foot retailer. “We were the only ones here when we opened five years ago.” The store has grown progressively over the years.
“I’ve never seen a neighborhood change so fast,” Pizzurro added. “The influx of stores and restaurants outpaces people. One-thousand new apartments are coming online in the next six months within three blocks. Manhattan has become very homogenized and gentrified. We get lots of European and Japanese clients.” Despite the changes, Pizzurro said, his corner of Williamsburg still feels “edgier and more like a neighborhood.”
Williamsburg now faces the delicate balance of keeping national chains from dominating homegrown retailers, lest the neighborhood should begin to resemble a shopping mall.
Real estate experts said that while Bedford Avenue will become increasingly gentrified, other streets will be slower to change. Bedford Avenue’s transformation will push independent retailers to more underdeveloped locations such as Third Avenue, Sixth Avenue and Grand Street.
“It’s going to be difficult for Bedford Avenue,” said one real estate broker. “There’s a risk that its character could change.”
“Williamsburg is big enough that streets like Third Avenue and Sixth Avenue and Grand Street will fill in,” said Stephen Stephanou, a broker at Crown Retail Services. “There’s a risk that some mom-and-pop shops on Bedford Avenue may get scooped up by national types,” but they’ll move to one of the other streets.
Asking rents on Bedford Avenue range from $80 a square foot to $200 or more a square foot for ground-floor space near the BMT Canarsie L train station.
“There’s an authenticity to Williamsburg,” said Stephanou. “It’s similar to what SoHo was in the early stages of its development before it was about big brands. There’s a spontaneity. Williamsburg provides a view to Manhattan. There’s the waterfront and new residential real estate, but it’s still a streetscape. It’s livable on a personal scale, and that makes it appealing to European retailers.”
Williamsburg enjoys high recognition among foreign tourists. “International tourists already know about Williamsburg,” Stephanou said. “Its reputation precedes it. As we work with both landlords and tenants, it’s remarkable how popular a destination Williamsburg has become for a savvy international traveler.”
Peter Lawrence, general manager and a partner in the two-year-old Wythe Hotel on North 11th Street and Wythe Avenue, said the hotel’s customers are adventurous travelers from Australia, South Africa and Europe. “Brooklyn is enough of an international conversation right now that it holds some interest for them,” he said. “We get a ton of business travelers. They’re artists, musicians and graphic designers, reflective of the neighborhood, which has a creative edge.”