Chestnut Hill’s shopping corridor has seen a lot of change over the past two years.
Several storefronts along the ten-block stretch of Germantown Avenue have gone dark, with both independent ventures – such as Intermission and Fabrics on the Hill – and chain stores – such as Children’s Place and Borders Bookstore – bidding farewell.
A number of new businesses have blossomed too. Newcomers include several, more modern restaurants, such as Mica and Iron Hill Brewery, and a host of home décor stores such as Room Service and Earth.
But with all that movement, is the bruised commercial district in Northwest Philadelphia still struggling or on the mend?
According to Eileen Reilly, the neighborhood’s retail recruiter, it’s the latter. She thinks it won’t be long before the Avenue gets the recognition it deserves.
“It’ll take time before Philadelphia Magazine gives us the Best Main Street [award], but I would hope that they would feel that we are, if not certainly closing in on it,” she said.
Fewer empty store fronts
Reilly’s confidence is rooted in her latest vacancy figures for the Avenue.
As of January, only 20 out of 125 storefronts are sitting on the corridor sans lease. It’s the lowest total since she took the part-time job two summers ago. The figure was then closer to 33. (Not all leases have come as a direct result of Reilly’s work).
Reilly said there are also four retailers in the midst of negotiations for spaces 3,000 square-feet or bigger. She would not divulge their identities.
“It’s a domino effect, “said Reilly when asked to explain the neighborhood’s renewed commercial appeal.
“People want to be associated with good business. With each strong placement on a block, the vacancy next to them is easier to lease,” she continued.
At least two business owners, interviewed by NewsWorks, have noticed that Chestnut Hill’s commercial climate is improving. Both said the Avenue is more stable than before.
“It’s very reassuring,” said Vanessa Mullen, co-owner of Campbell’s Place. “In a year’s time things have changed remarkably in terms of Chestnut Hill’s buzz and notoriety.”
Mullen, who runs the business with her husband, Rob, said that’s translated into more traffic at the tavern-style eatery. And over the last six months, she’s noticed that more customers are coming from outside of the community – Lafayette Hill and Glenside in nearby Montgomery County, for example.
“It’s not overwhelming, but noticeable,” said Mullen of the uptick in business.
Lisa Howe, co-owner of Artisans on the Avenue, a women’s apparel store, has also seen more feet inside her business. Customers, it seems, are more willing to spend these days.
“They’re not spending wildly, but they are spending,” she said. “They’re coming in to supplement what they have and we’re a store where you don’t need anything in here.”
Howe adds that she’s seeing younger shoppers – in their early 40s – in her store and elsewhere.
“We have been traditionally sort of old and stodgy and there’s a younger person on the Avenue,” said Howe.
She attributes much of the upswing to the improving economy, but does point to recently opened shops, such as the Weavers Way Co-op, for helping to bring more shoppers to Chestnut Hill.
The master plan at work
Reilly said she looks to cluster like businesses together in an effort to create distinct shopping experiences along different sections of the Avenue.
“The blocks are actual telling me what they want,” she said.
The 8500 block of Germantown Avenue, for example, is food focused, she said, with businesses like Kitchen Kapers, Penzy Spices and the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop all in close proximity to one another.
It’s just one of the ideals set forth in a retail strategy the community commissioned nearly two years ago.
Reilly – a matchmaker between prospective businesses and landlords – said bringing new tenants in is a bit easier these days with Avenue property owners being more open to rent negotiations, a historic source of contention.
What’s next for the Ave?
Going forward, Reilly will continue seeking out businesses that are willing to do things a bit differently, such as staying open later or having a web presence.
Most of her attention will be on retailers. She said not to expect a lot more restaurants. Most of the good spaces are already full.
“They’re doing things fresher,” said Reilly of the types of store’s she’s trying to land in Chestnut Hill.
Most of all, Reilly wants to make sure that the new businesses coming to the Avenue are a good fit for her target demographic – working professionals in their late 30s, early 40s with kids.
There are still a few more vacancies that need to be filled before she will feel like the neighborhood has completely turned the corner.
Two big properties, though – the former Borders location at the top of the Hill and the former Magarity Ford dealership closer to the middle – will soon be visibly removed from the list of vacancies.
Children of America, a national daycare center company, will open its first Philadelphia location in the former. Local real estate developer, Bowman Properties, will demolish the latter and build a five-story grocery-store anchored complex.
“We’re lucky to have them interested in our corridor,” said Reilly of Children of America, which is scheduled to move in sometime this spring.
As for the Magarity project, which drew a considerable amount of public outrage for its size and re-zoning requirements, Reilly said, “I predict that the complaint you’re going to hear moving forward is that it’s not happening soon enough.”
Reilly has said that the empty car dealership space was blight-like and that the new development at 8200 Germantown Ave. will help draw shoppers to the lower half of the Hill.
Reilly said she will reassess progress on the Avenue in the spring, when a new set of statistics will be crunched.
NEWSWORKS unofficial tally of businesses that have recently opened or closed
New to Germantown Avenue
Nichols Berg Gallery
Gravers Lane Gallery
Chestnut Hill Pharmacy
Posh Hair Artistry
Oxford Circus Toys
Iron Hill Brewery
Chestnut Hill 7
Left Germantown Avenue
The Little Nook
The Candle Shop
Fabrics on the Hill
The Children’s Place
What did we miss? If you know of a new or departing Chestnut Hill business please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org