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Some of CT’s popular downtowns seeing sustained retail boom

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As downtown retailers open their doors on Black Friday in Connecticut, there is one tiny subset of “shoppers” who are finding slim pickings — store entrepreneurs or expansion-minded chains looking to open in the most sought-after town centers, where far fewer storefronts are available today.

The commercial real estate websites LoopNet and Crexi.com list about 600 retail and restaurant properties statewide in Connecticut that have vacancies, including some with multiple suites available that roughly doubles the number of actual storefronts. Statewide, the National Retail Federation counted nearly 44,000 retail establishments at last report.

But drilling into the data, the possibilities are few and far between for new stores and restaurants in many downtown retail districts in Connecticut. And few retailers are letting their leases lapse in the run-up to the holidays, setting many up for extended runs downtown if shoppers turn out in force this year as many analysts expect, despite higher prices that could crimp actual spending.

In the shopping Mecca of Greenwich, just one space on Greenwich Avenue has come onto the market since Labor Day, as tracked by LoopNet. At the opposite end of the state in the village of Mystic, no spaces are listed as available in the tourist town’s walking district. And along other drags like Westport, Kent and West Hartford, retail districts are near capacity.

“There’s a resurgence of the downtown, experiential retail — these are areas where the larger retailers have barriers to entry because of zoning and other issues,” said Sean Cahill, managing director in the Norwalk office of real estate brokerage Avison Young. “You’re seeing more restaurants, you’re seeing more health and wellness, salon services — and also certain boutiques, but not mall-type tenants.”

As much as anywhere, the crunch is particularly apparent in Darien, where the initial phase of the massive Corbin District downtown redevelopment is going vertical and Darien Commons is nearing completion opposite the Noroton Heights station of Metro-North. Along the roughly half-mile stretch of the Post Road from Darien Sport Shop to Starbucks and on side streets, most every street-level storefront is occupied on the eve of Black Friday.

In downtown Westport centered on Main Street, just one in 15 storefronts is vacant. And Greenwich Avenue boasts a strong occupancy rate, although a few prominent storefronts can be had at top dollar including “the chateau” at the top of Greenwich Avenue where Duxiana had a bedding store; and the former United Bank branch at the bottom of The Avenue, where the landlord is seeking $100 a square foot.

Particularly in western Connecticut but in many locales statewide as well during the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and towns saw a boom real estate market that brought many newcomers from New York and elsewhere. Couple that with shipping delays of the past year and some retailers starting to stiffen return policies on deliveries, and stores are getting a second wind in the Amazon age from local shoppers eager to explore both familiar and new shops.

The question is whether it is sustainable — and whether landlords will begin to hike lease rates to make chains or would-be shop owners think twice about expanding in Connecticut towns, particularly in downtown areas where limited parking can deter some shoppers during the busiest stretches.

Commercial brokerage Cushman & Wakefield reported the US shopping center vacancy rate dropping to 5.9 percent in the third quarter, the lowest in more than 15 years.

“Tenants are finding it difficult to meet their new store opening targets and have been aggressively pursuing opportunities,” said Conor Flynn, CEO of Kimco Realty which owns retail centers in Branford, Farmington, Hamden, Newtown, North Haven and Wilton among more than 500 nationally. “In a lot of ways, this might be the best leasing environment we’ve ever seen because of the depth and breadth of the retailer demand, and the lack of supply.”

[email protected]; @casoulman

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