This week marks the one-year anniversary since Borders Books closed its doors in Chestnut Hill. While no one expected another business to move in right away it may come as a surprise to learn that the old Border Bookstore location is expected to remain vacant till 2012.
The building at 8701 Germantown Avenue is considered the most prestigious commercial property in Chestnut Hill. It sits at the highest point on the Ave. At roughly 18,000 square feet and three floors, including the basement, the property is one of the largest in Chestnut Hill.
While size and location make it a prime real estate location, according to Eileen Reilly, the retail recruiter representing several civic groups in Chestnut Hill, its size could actually serve as a deterrent to potential businesses interested in the location.
“(Borders) was enormous as far as an independent retail space,” Reilly said. “They needed to tailor back in order to survive.”
Reilly speculated that there may have been several factors, such as competition from online book stores and poor location for the type of store it was, played a part in the bookstore’s demise. However, she admits that the store was busy. “I don’t know if it was a place to go to buy something (though), or just a place to go.”
She is not alone in her analysis. “I thought it was a great store, but no one ever went in there and spent any money,” said Ron Recko, a former president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association and Chestnut Hill resident since 1969. “They just couldn’t cut it.”
Finding the right business
Acadia Realty Trust, based in New York, owns the Borders property. Fameco Real Estate acts, as the real estate broker with exclusive rights to the property, meaning that all parties interested in the location, including Reilly, must go through that organization.
As retail recruiter, filling the Borders property is a major objective, but Reilly is in no rush to find a new renter. She believes that many businesses could have been signed to the lease, but that they wouldn’t have been successful or beneficial to the neighborhood. “It wouldn’t serve anyone except maybe (Acadia’s) bottom line and that’s not their priority,” she said. “They want more than just a signed lease and a paycheck.”
Old Borders store could be divided
Currently, options are being weighed. “(Acadia is) not opposed to splitting it up,” Reilly said. This could make the property more appealing because the investment isn’t so large.
Reilly said potential businesses could include a restaurant, offices, a health club, or a lifestyle store, either alone or together. “The businesses would have to complement,” she said. She could not say how much the lease would cost because length of lease and amount of property must be factored in.
Discussions have taken place with several businesses, but nothing promising has arisen so far.
According to Reilly, both the property owners and her employers are willing to wait to find a business that will fit into the neighborhood and hopefully have some longevity. She expects that filling other; smaller vacancies first will create a snowball effect that will lead to the Acadia property being filled. “When everyone else is at that party, you want to be invited to that party.”
Reilly does not operate on a deadline. She expects the lease for the Borders property to be in negotiations by spring of 2012, but is still hoping for something to arise during this year. Her part in the operation depends upon her one-year contract being renewed when it expires this June.
Activity on the Ave
Five new businesses have signed leases since the retail recruiter was hired last June. They include Hob Nob, Chestnut Hill Pharmacy, Thai Kuu, Posh Salon, and a new restaurant by owner of the popular Blackfish restaurant in Conshohocken. Combined with three leases in negotiation and several “pop-up” stores that set up base for the holiday season, Reilly believes that Chestnut Hill is regaining some “commercial vitality.”
But the economy is taking its toll Cuba restaurant, 8609 Germantown Ave. and Solaris Grille, 8201 Germantown Avenue both closed recently.
Greg Welsh, owner of the Chestnut Sidewalk Bar and Grille and president of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, attests to Reilly’s presence as having a positive impact on the community. “We have fewer vacancies today than we did a year ago today,” he said. “(Reilly) has been generating a lot of interest.”
Reilly expects that she can turn things around for Chestnut Hill. “If I can get (business owners) on the avenue, I’m three quarters of the way there.”
Not everyone shares in Reilly’s enthusiasm. “They need something that’s going to track people up to Chestnut Hill,” said Ron Recko. “Right now they don’t have that.”
How about a movie theater?
Recko believes that the cure for the neighborhood’s ailments is a movie theater – a magnet of sorts to draw people to the neighborhood. “You need some kind of reason for people to come to Chestnut Hill, they need something to do,” he said. “You need a reason to come here and right now there isn’t much of a reason.”
Reilly said the idea wasn’t brushed aside. “It has been looked at, seriously looked at,” she said. But remodeling costs and the fact that it wouldn’t be possible to fit three screens, considered the minimum requirement for a successful theater, into the space led to abandonment of the idea. “It’s just not big enough for that,” she said.
No shortage of ideas
Welsh from the business association even went so far as to have an architect draft and a blueprint for his own idea of what should happen with the vacant property. His plans called for splitting up the lease and using the top floor as offices for community organizations and the bottom floor for a restaurant and several shops. “It’s one of the highest points in the city,” Welsh said. “It doesn’t bode well for any commercial avenue to have a property like that sitting vacant.”
Reilly believes that whichever business ultimately takes over the lease will be met with support from neighborhood residents. “(Chestnut Hill residents) love where they live,” she said. “Any retailer that comes will be welcomed with open arms and open pocketbooks.”