As of Wednesday morning, there were 16 empty storefronts on Washington Street, and at least two, Rite Aid and Empire Coffee, will be moving by the end of the year. The Chamber of Commerce believes that the escalating rents are a trend that must be addressed with before the situation gets worse.
A changing look
At the beginning of Hoboken's boom at the end of the 1980s, the city was evolving from its working-class roots into to a city where young people could afford to start up a first-time business. By the early 1990s, clothing, shoes, unique home furnishings, and artsy gift stores popped up along Washington Street.
But as the city continues to change and attract more young professionals, it has become a victim of its own success. Over the past five years, rents along the city's main retail corridor have doubled or even tripled, which has squeezed some of the decades-old businesses off of Washington Street.
"Rents are reaching the level where very few small businesses can afford the rents they're being asked to pay," said Chamber of Commerce President Brian Battaglia, who also owns two stores, one for home furnishings and the other for gifts and housewares, on Washington Street.
Several businesses on Washington Street have moving signs in their windows. Many are moving westward, away from Washington Street.
One example of the exodus is Hand Mad, a store which sells eclectic arts, crafts, novelties and jewelry, unique items that shoppers probably aren't going to find an area mall. The store had been a Washington Street fixture for the past 14 years and has always had a loyal following, but according to the shop's owner, Maureen Kennedy, the new economics of Washington Street have forced her to relocate west to 86 Park Ave.
"I tried reasoning with [the landlord], but it's just a matter of profit," said Kennedy. Her landlord wanted to raise the rent from $5,200 to $9,500 per month, she said.
She said that escalating rents are driving businesses like hers off of the main retail corridor, something that will come back to haunt the city.
"If you look at successful cites, people want to live near the galleries and shops," she said. "That's what makes a neighborhood interesting."
Kennedy added that Washington Street is in danger of losing its distinctive charm and appeal because of a lack of planning and forethought. "Just look at how many empty storefronts there are, and it's clearly obvious that businesses are moving off of Washington Street," she said.
Empire Coffee & Tea, a store that specializes in gourmet coffee blends and popular gift baskets, is locally owned by Abbe Rivers, who doubles as a musician who has played annually at the Hoboken Arts and Music Festival. The shop has that small-town feel, where the employees seem to know everyone who walks in the door. But because of rising rents, she too is forced to pack up her shelves and move to 338 Bloomfield St.
"My rent is basically tripling - we made an offer to try and split the difference, but [the landlord] wouldn't budge, so I have no choice," said Rivers in Chris Halleron's column in the Hudson Current (www.hudsoncurrent.com). "It's a shame to have to pick up and leave the space. But in the 10 years that I've been there, I've seen a lot of interesting small businesses fall by the wayside."
She added that if this trend continues, Hoboken's delightful character will dissipate. "The charm of the town is small business," she added. "[We're] honest people trying to make an honest living selling a righteous product. I'm really sad that this is my last Christmas here in this space."
Filling the 'Gap?'
With rising rents, rumors and gossip circulating around the business community say national corporate retailers like the Gap, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Banana Republic, might enter the picture.
But Washington Street isn't necessarily the best location for these corporate stores because, according to one local Realtor, they require sufficient parking before they can open in an area. Also, these types of stores have strict square footage requirements, which few Washington Street spaces meet.
Battaglia said national stores might also be scared off by Hoboken's size. While the city has affluent demographics, there are still only up to 40,000 people that live here, which might discourage larger national retailers.
But while Washington Street might be out of the picture, the city's master plan, which was adopted by the Planning Board in April, might give some hints about the future of national retailers in Hoboken. The plan, which will be a guideline for development over the next 20 years, calls for the creation of an economic development area in the "Underbridge" area at the far northwest corner of the city.
According to the plan, there is a demand on the part of Hobokenites for somewhat larger scale retail that currently does not exist within the city. The most appropriate location for such "medium-box"-sized uses (10,000 to 30,000 square feet) is in the northern section of the city.
"The district should not compete with Washington Street and Hoboken's traditional commercial establishments, but should provide a location for uses that do not belong in the heart of the city due to the needs for vehicular access, parking and larger building foot prints," reads the master plan.
Parking, parking, parking - it may sound like a broken record, but ask any restaurant or retail shop owner up and down Washington Street, and they likely will say the number one impediment to attracting customers to Washington Street establishments.
"Foot traffic is down in Hoboken," said Battaglia. "There just aren't as many people going into stores, and I think the lack of parking is the number one cause for that."
One of merchants' biggest complaints is over new residential parking rules that were implemented in 2003. The new rules have one side zoned most non-metered streets for Hoboken residents only, with no grace period for visitors. All of Washington and parts of Bloomfield are exempt from the rule, but storeowners have said that taking half of the spaces from the surrounding streets has hurt business on Washington Street. Those who violate the rules now have their car booted. While shoppers still have a four-hour grace period on the other side of the street, merchants say that taking away essentially half of the on-street parking spaces has a negative impact on Washington Street business. "There has been a dramatic decrease in business stemming from the systematic reduction in parking for employees and customers," Battaglia in a recent letter to the editor. "Customers who live in and out of Hoboken want to shop in Hoboken, but without parking they go elsewhere."
He added that the first time that a visitor walks out to find a boot on their car is probably the last time they come to Hoboken to shop or eat.
City officials counter that parking in Hoboken is often a zero-sum game. To give one group an on-street parking space, a space has to be taken away from another.
"The city has been meeting regularly with the Chamber, and some changes have been implemented," said Battaglia. "The city has given local business employees reduced rates in our municipal garages, which should increase the number of meter spots available to shoppers."
Also, at the last meeting, the City Council unanimously agreed to eliminate the red (20-minute) meters, making meter rates and time limits consistent throughout Hoboken at $1 an hour with a maximum stay of two hours. Retailers, and especially restaurant owners, hope the longer meters will allow customers to shop and dine without feeling rushed and constantly running out to feed their meter.
'Park and Shop'
During the holiday season the Chamber and the City have sponsored free parking in local garages and a free shuttle bus the runs the length of Washington Street. This is the last weekend for free parking. According to the Chamber of Commerce, the bus will follow a continuous route beginning at Second and Washington streets, heading north to 14th Street. From 14th Street, it will turn left onto Willow Avenue and ride down to 11th Street. From 11th Street, the bus will turn back onto Washington Street, ride down to Third Street, and turn left toward Hudson Street, where it will finally turn right to the public parking garages, completing a 20-minute route. The bus will stop at designated points and run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Hoboken Chamber of Commerce and the municipal government also are sponsoring free parking at the Hoboken Parking Authority's Garage B, located on Second Street between Hudson and River streets. Those wishing to take advantage of the service can receive parking validation from most of the Chamber of Commerce's member stores and several other local businesses.
The offer is available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days on this, the final weekend before Christmas.