Business Commentaries

Downtown View: Downtown is Hot Again for Retailers

Large retail enterprises are once again interested in urban locations.

That’s the message that commercial real estate managers sent at a forum last week to members of the Boston-area chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks. I went because I am interested in the retail world. Retail satisfies our needs and enlivens our streets. A good retail sector is critical to good city living.

“I like seeing people walking around,” said Jonathan Shumrak, senior real estate manager at Walgreens, as he explained how his company chooses sites.

City Sports and the Legendary Restaurant Group were also represented. All these companies were investing in up and coming areas. Walgreen’s, for example, famously took over the old Border’s store at the corner of Washington and School streets. Chris Damian, co-owner of such restaurants as Scollay Square on Beacon Street and Papagayo in Charlestown, said they had recently opened a restaurant in booming Somerville. His group is also high on Downtown Crossing and the theatre district where they have three restaurants, including one with the Papagayo brand. Howard Clark, director of construction for City Sports, acted as if he preferred customers who come by foot, taxi or train. He complained that in his Wellesley store’s parking lot he has had to hire dump trucks to remove snow three times this winter so customers could park.

Tourists play a role in where these businesses choose to locate, said the panelists. That’s good news for Boston,

Another commonality that surprised me was the change in these chain stores from one size fits all to accommodating urban spaces. Damian told of one of his restaurants that has no heat delivery system. The dining room sits on top of the building’s boiler and water heater, so it’s plenty warm. The panelists discussed such problems as accepting deliveries in small spaces, but they agreed that those problems can be solved.

The attitudes these men were expressing showed a big change from a few years ago when I invited a Nordstrom’s representative to take a look at downtown Boston. He said his company was not interested in downtown areas, but was concentrating its expansion in suburban malls. I wonder how his plan, smack-dab in the middle of a back-to-the-city movement, is working out, but I didn’t ask.

Interestingly, these guys were not unduly worried about competition from the Internet, nor were they overly dependent on retail electronics. They stressed their dependence on human interaction. City Sports depends on staff members’ expertise on sports innovation to “curate” the goods and help customers find what they might not even know would work better for them. Of course the Internet isn’t going to hurt a restaurant—you can’t dine at Google.

But Walgreens probably won’t install those self-checkout machines that CVS frustrates its customers with, and Damian’s restaurants aren’t going to give diners iPads on which to order their food.

Electronics do play a big role behind the scene though, said Clark. With thin margins, competition from Amazon and bad weather, bricks and mortar stores have to keep track of every transaction. “Retail has to invent all the time,” he said.

These panelists were all running sophisticated operations. Walgreens has more than 8,000 locations, City Sports has 23, and even local restaurateur Damian has six of them. Is there any room left for the mom and pop store, or a small, but wonderful one-off enterprise like Kitchen Witch in JP or Tadpole in the South End?

Yes, says Rosemarie Sansone, the president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District. She cites several local business people, especially restaurateurs, that have opened or will open soon, including the Merchant, which will move into the Franklin Street space the London Harness Company once occupied. She believes independent businesses and chains can compliment one another.

It helps if the independent business owns its space as does E. B. Horn. But this little gem of a jewelry shop has been in business since 1839, so it does have an edge.

And it may be unrealistic to think that small shops that do well in neighborhood shopping districts would be able to make it next to a big Walgreens. For one thing, the spaces in the downtown are typically larger than those in the neighborhoods.

For now, those of us who live downtown are happy that retailers have finally figured out that there is good business to be done here. And who knows, maybe London Harness, one of my favorites stores, will return.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at