When Tricia Tunstall opened p45 on Damen Avenue two decades ago, the women’s boutique was surrounded by other local businesses.
These days, the Bucktown shopping avenue is coming to terms with two trends that seemed inconceivable in 1997: waves of national chains, and empty storefronts.
“Damen was put on the map as the place to find interesting local boutiques,” Tunstall said. “It was an artistic neighborhood. Through the years it’s changed. You see fewer and fewer local businesses because it’s harder to afford the rent.”
As ubiquitous names such as Nike and Reebok have poured in, and independent retailers shutter stores, the street struggles to maintain its quirky vibe.
“Nationally, the whole retail market has changed,” Tunstall said. “I’m ready for the small, mom-and-pop stores to come back. We’ve survived because we have great customers who’ve supported us.”
Although Damen Avenue faces the biggest identity crisis, it isn’t the only North Side retail corridor that has undergone rapid change.
In its first study of the shopping areas, Chicago-based retail brokerage Stone Real Estate surveyed Damen and two other top North Side streets known for boutique merchants: Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park and Lakeview’s Southport Avenue. All three avenues have undergone a reinvention from 2012 through mid-2017, the period of the study, when commercial real estate emerged from a prolonged slump to soar.
Southport, Armitage and Damen have much in common, including nearby public transportation and affluent, densely populated neighborhoods. Those attributes have attracted big, national retailers that in turn have pushed up rents.
But they’ve each evolved in different ways.
(Area included in study: Sheffield Avenue to Halsted Street)
Vacancy ballooned to almost 17 percent in 2013, and it remained nearly 14 percent in 2017. Take away the long-vacant former restaurant of the late Charlie Trotter, however, and there’s only 7 percent vacancy, according to the report. That’s because in recent years the street’s 1800s architecture has attracted 21st-century tenants: e-commerce companies opening shops.
The likes of Warby Parker, Bonobos, Interior Define and Tie Bar — all of which are known more for online sales — have clustered together. Online home furnishings retailer Serena & Lily is planning a two-level store. Cafes, restaurants and cosmetics shops also have gobbled up space as Armitage has reduced its reliance on national clothing brands.
During the past five years, annual rents have risen from the low-to-mid $60 per square-foot range to the low-to-mid $70s.
“I think e-tailers will continue to flock to Armitage, because they like to be near each other,” said Stone Real Estate broker Will Winter, the report’s author. “The rise of food and beverage has also brought a nice diversity to the street.”
(Area included: Willow Street to North Avenue)
The rise in popularity of Bucktown and Wicker Park hasn’t gone unnoticed by national retailers, which have plowed onto the street and caused rents to increase from as low as $45 per square foot to as high as $70 in just a few years.
Some of the national companies’ time on the street has been relatively short-lived, creating a mix of vacant storefronts and a higher point of entry, making those empty spaces more difficult to fill. Overall retail vacancy fell below 5 percent in 2014, only to jump above 16 percent in 2017.
Gone in recent years are Silver Cloud Bar & Grill, the Psychobaby kids apparel and toy shop and clothing boutiques including Helen Yi, Riley and Belly Dance.
Some national retailers that have moved in are edgier concepts, such as Shinola, Bucketfeet, YellowKorner and Oak + Fort. But the street also has added plenty of well-known shoe and apparel brands.
“The rise of the nationals has pushed up rents and made it more difficult to afford for the local shops that made the street what it is,” Winter said. “I think there will be a correction back to the norm (on vacancy), and there may be an adjustment on asking rents.”
(Area included: Addison Street to Roscoe Street)
The Lakeview corridor has seen the biggest increase in chains, which have gone from occupying 39 percent of the total space in 2012 to 61 percent in 2017. Yet Southport has remained the most stable of the three streets, with virtually no vacancy. Rents have risen to around $70 per square foot today, up from $60 five years earlier.
Changes on Southport have been less jarring because the street didn’t emerge as a high-profile retail destination until the past few years, Winter said. That means there were fewer beloved, longtime shops to lose as properties were redeveloped.
Some well-known departures include the Mystic Celt bar and Coobah restaurant. But much of the street’s new retail space has come from teardowns of older buildings and the replacement of businesses that weren’t as consumer-oriented. Newer shops include Soul Cycle, Lululemon Athletica, Lou & Grey and the city’s first Amazon Books.
“Southport rose with the nationals, and Damen is struggling because of the rise of the nationals,” said broker John Vance, a Stone Real Estate principal. “The replacement process (on Southport) didn’t eradicate the DNA of the street.”