Rittenhouse Square surges with new shops

Brittany Goldberg and Michael Salove of MSC Retail Inc., a real estate advisory services firm whose clients include tenants and landlords at Rittenhouse Square, in front of Vince, a high-end clothing store the firm brought to Walnut Street. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Everyone loves an underdog, especially in retail.

For years, the smaller rental spaces along numbered streets near Rittenhouse Square existed in the shadow of Walnut and Chestnut.

But over the last five years, there has been a shift, say commercial brokers, thanks largely to skyrocketing rents that have forced smaller retailers to relocate to nearby numbered streets. Put simply, they've been priced out.

"It's a healthy turnover rate with new retailers coming in," said Michael Salove, chief executive officer of MSC Retail Inc., a real estate advisory services firm that has represented several tenants and landlords around Rittenhouse Square. "They resonate really well with the city."

Salove said a red-hot residential market with suburban empty nesters moving in and educated millennials staying here has generated strong sales for Rittenhouse retailers and restaurants. This has fueled demand for more of them, and is why space has become so costly.

In 2010 the retail vacancy rate for Rittenhouse Square was about 12 percent. Now it's around 8 percent, according to statistics tracked by MSC. Likewise, the average price per square foot has shot up 40 percent, to $147 from $105 five years ago.

Small independents - such as Nuts to You, Sophy Curson, Usona, and Philadelphia Runner, which all sit on numbered streets - are thriving by offering niche products.

They coexist among the likes of Michael Kors and A/X Armani Exchange on Walnut and Nordstrom Rack on Chestnut that have national chains to back them.

The latest example of this trend is Skirt, the women's apparel and jewelry boutique.

Skirt developed a substantial following at its flagship Bryn Mawr store, and will open a 1,200-square-foot store mid-August at 212 S. 17th St., marking its third store in the region. Another is in Stone Harbor, N.J.

"It feels more upscale to not be on Walnut or Chestnut," said Skirt owner Maureen Doron, 38, who recently stopped by her new digs, formerly Duxiana, a luxury mattress store. "The spaces are a little more spread out, and the stores seem more filled with light.

"It's where people live and are raising families," she said.

Some brands that Doron will be selling at her Rittenhouse Skirt are from stand-alone shops on Walnut and Chestnut, including Theory, Calypso St. Barth, and Vince.

Philadelphia Runner, at 1601 Sansom St., has been around for 11 years. Colorful sneakers line the storefront. "We have a lot of repeat customers, and we also bring new people in," said Ross Martinson, 37, a former elite runner who co-owns the store with partners Bryan Mahon and Steve Siegfried.

"A big part of our success has always been passionate people on our staff," said Martinson, of Conshohocken. "They run, work out, and are really into a healthy lifestyle and helping people get into it."

Martinson said all the new development in Center City over the last decade has helped his store.

"A decade ago, it was nice," he said. "Rent was high on Chestnut Street, but not nearly as high as now. It's been great to see. Having a mix [of retailers] is a good thing."

His advice for retailers to succeed on the numbered streets: "Connect with the community by holding events, and help the community hold its events."

Justin Bernstein's grandfather, Manny, started Nuts to You in 1975 at 24 S. 20th St. in a space that was half the size it is now.

Two more Nuts to You, including one at 16th and Market, will open in the next six months, taking total stores to six. "We have a staple that everyone wants," said Bernstein of Center City, as he worked the cash register. "Income does not matter."

Chocolate pretzels go for $4 a pound at the store. A bag of popcorn popped in-house goes for $2.49. With robust sales, the 20th Street store will extend hours until 7 p.m. Wednesday to Friday after Labor Day.

The demand among retailers to be in the area has surged so much that Brittany Goldberg, a high street specialist (meaning she deals only with high-end retailers) who works for MSC's Salove, said a constant game of musical chairs is going on.

"We'll convince one tenant to move to a more appropriate location, to either upsize or downsize, to put a new one in," Goldberg said. "It's called back filling. It's about creating opportunity."

For instance, when Juicy Couture, a retailer of pricey velour sweat suits, moved out of 1701 Walnut St., Goldberg negotiated for Vince, a high-end clothing shop for men and women, to move in. Also, Goldberg leased the space at 1705 Walnut St., formerly occupied by Burberry, to Michael Kors.

Skirt's neighbor is Manor Home and Gifts, which sells china, crystal, and Italian ceramics. Next to it is French bakery Miel Patisserie, which showcases a jewel case of macaroons in its storefront. Pizzeria Vetri just moved in across the street.

"This is who I want to be next to and not necessarily those [retail] big boxes," said Skirt's Doron, the new kid on the block from Gladwyne. "It feels like what Walnut and Chestnut used to feel like years ago."