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Inside Brookfield's Plans To Heal What Ails Bleecker Street

When Brookfield picked up seven storefronts on vacancy-ravaged Bleecker Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, the company vowed to return the strip to its former glory. The Bleecker Street buy — Brookfield paid New York REIT $31.5M for the properties — was billed as an opportunity to create a testing ground for new retail concepts equipped to weather the worsening retail storm.

Bonberi Bodega, a concept in Brookfield's Bleecker Street retail incubator

This week, the Canadian equity giant revealed its first step in the revitalization plan, an initiative dubbed “Love, Bleecker,” which includes new stores, art installations and cultural programming.

“Seeing all the vacancy that existed, a lightbulb went off,” Brookfield Senior Vice President of Retail Leasing Michael Goldban said. "We like to buy out-of-favor assets, and we thought it was a great time to buy."

The idea, he said, is to create an experience on the street that goes beyond merely shopping.

In recent years, Bleecker Street became a casualty of skyrocketing rents and a flood of brands that were crammed into the small spaces. At one point, there were six Marc Jacobs shops on the street.

As retailers fled, it became something of a retail ghost town, with vacated storefronts populating buildings up and down the stretch.

Rents have plummeted, with the average asking price per SF for ground-floor retail on the street at $332, according to the Real Estate Board of New York's spring retail report. Brookfield declined to comment on asking rents for its stores.

Nicole Berrie in her store, Bonberi Bodega, a concept in Brookfield's Bleecker Street retail incubator

“It seems they are being very sensitive and thoughtful about what works on Bleecker,” Susan Penzner Real Estate broker Nathan Stange said. “For many years, retailers were putting a square peg into a round hole … Trying to make Bleecker into a retail destination … [But] part of its charm has always been that it’s a neighborhood shopping area.”

Brookfield tapped Skylight, a creative strategy and development firm, to roll out this initiative. Skylight selected brands to take space in the stores, as well as putting together site-specific installations in the storefronts, arranging public art in the street, music and cultural programming in the spaces.

Love, Bleecker even has a custom scent.

The initiative runs for a year, and some of the retailers who are there at the start may rotate. None of the brands have had a brick-and-mortar presence in the past.

Robin Rose Hilleary in her store, Fleurotica, a concept in Brookfield's Bleecker Street retail incubator

At 384 Bleecker St., for example, a vegan bodega called Bonberi — a physical extension of a wellness website — has opened alongside Fleurotica, a flower shop.

“In New York, it is hard to have a space as a florist,” Fleurotica owner Robin Rose Hilleary said. “[Here] I am morphing into retail, but maintaining my own weirdo identity.”

Next door, 382 Bleecker St. is being used as a gallery space. Right now it features an art installation where locals and visitors are invited to write their “love letters to Bleecker Street” on the walls.

Concert pianists will perform in the space, and in November, a cashmere goods brand called Lingua Franca will open there.

Caitlin DiStefano adjusts dresses at Prabal Gurung, a concept in Brookfield's Bleecker Street retail incubator

Across the street at 367/369 Bleecker St., women’s clothing designer Prabal Gurung has opened its first store in a space left vacant when Burberry closed up.

Down the road, Slightly Alabama, a leather goods retailer, has opened in the space at 350 Bleecker St. That store has an event area in the back, and Rolling Stone and Third Street Music School Settlement will be running programming there as part of the Love, Bleecker initiative.

Dana Glaeser in his store, Slightly Alabama, a concept in Brookfield's Bleecker Street retail incubator

“As an independent brand, to be on one of the most popular streets in New York City, it’s not a hard choice,” Slightly Alabama owner and Creative Director Dana Glaeser said. “[Being here means] being close to something that is tied to heritage.”

Slightly Alabama owner Dana Glaeser's dog, Sheffield

Brookfield’s approach speaks to a wider challenge landlords and retailers are facing.

In the first half of 2018, more than 2,500 store locations closed in the United States, according to JLL. Nearly 600 more locations will close by the end of the year. Experimenting and testing out new concepts is fast becoming the only way to survive.

An empty storefront on Bleecker Street in 2018. Retail has already faced enormous challenges in the city.

With the ease of online shopping, many consumers will only go to a physical store if it offers some form of an experience, something that cannot be re-created on the internet.

Landlords and retailers are being told to prepare for the next generation of shoppers, members of Generation Z, who are more discerning and skeptical about what they buy and where it comes from.

Intermix on Bleecker Street

“We are not looking for mass-market brands … We are looking for emerging brands that are more relevant to customers today,” Goldban said, adding that, anecdotally, foot traffic on the street has increased and more innovative brands are coming to stores in the area.

“We are working to make it the most interesting urban shopping street in the world.”

Goldban will be speaking at Bisnow’s National Retail: East Coast Series at 866 United Nations Plaza Thursday, Oct. 4.