Main Street: One Real Estate Firm’s View

They’re not the Trump Organization, the mammoth real estate company. They’re not Empire State Realty, which own the Empire State Building — and commercial real estate on Westport’s Main Street.

But Admiral Real Estate Services is no slouch. The commercial real estate company focuses on retail sites in the tri-state area. You’ve seen their signs on vacant storefronts around town.

If they have their way, you’ll see fewer in the future. Admiral is bullish on Westport.

The last couple of years have not been easy, notes president and CEO Jonathan Gordon.

Norwalk’s new SoNo Collection mall — “the newest and shiniest project out there,” Gordon admits — “sucked a lot of the energy out of downtown.”

COVID brutalized merchants and landlords. Downtown Westport — and similar markets like Darien, Greenwich, Rye and Scarsdale — saw shoppers flee to online.

But as the nation emerges from the pandemic, Gordon says, “retailers are returning our calls.”

Part of the reason, he believes, is “internet fatigue. Millennials want a more experiential shopping experience. Retailers see a need to be downtown.”

One empty storefront is among the most visible in all of downtwn.

“Downtown” draws more than Westporters, Gordon says. It’s a destination for many area residents. Within a 15-minute drive, Admiral’s website says, “the  population jumps to over 150,000 with an average income exceeding $170,000, resulting in total buying power for in-store retail goods (excluding food and drink) of $4 billion+.”

One thing that Westport has over some other affluent suburbs is that while residents leave in the summer for vacations (and vacation homes), they’re replaced by equally affluent summer residents. That’s attractive to Admiral — and the properties they represent.

Despite an upturn in commercial real estate activity, there are still a number of empty storefronts. For Admiral, that includes 2 properties at the Post Road/ Main Street intersection, and 4 others on the river side of Main Street (one is the long-vacant 2-story restaurant most recently occupied by Boca and Acqua).

Boca restaurant closed in 2018. The Main Street property has been empty ever since.

Admiral also represents 2 properties on Post Road East, near Balducci’s.

For retailers looking for a new location, Gordon says, Westport’s competition is “really Greenwich.” It’s a “formidable” location, with a “nice, long retail strip, close to New York City.”

So, he says diplomatically, he tries to sell both locations.

In terms of Westport, Gordon says, “we view Main Street as one entity. Our goal is to find retailers that help other retailers be successful.” La Fenice gelateria — an Admiral tenant — is one such place.

“People who get a gelato will go next door to shop,” Gordon notes. “If they come at night, they’ll go window shopping.”

The new Barnes & Noble — not an Admiral property — is another example of “exactly what downtown needs.”

27 Main Street is another Admiral property.

So how tough a sell is Westport?

“Everything is tough these days,” Gordon says. “We may drag people there by the scruffs of their neck. But we show them the free parking lots. We give them marketing materials, with specific breakdowns of population, income and consumer purchases. We help them assess the viability of a site. Seeing downtown is more powerful for them than anything.”

In the past, he notes, potential retailers have been “surprised at the disconnect between the number of vacant stores, and the potential.”

Coming out of COVID, he hopes, those numbers — and that disconnect — will diminish. In their place will be a new mix of retailers, and eager shoppers from far and wide.

14 responses to “Main Street: One Real Estate Firm’s View

  1. Brad French

    That’s nice. They’ve got it all figured out.

  2. So nice to hear! Any chance we can get David’s Tea back?

  3. Matthew Mandell

    Nice piece, says what many of us have said for a while, Westport is a draw. Have to point out the quote about free parking. While many would want to charge for parking, this would be a mistake and make downtown less inviting. We have a unique and alluring open air, by the river, epicenter which is once again flourishing.

  4. Michael Isaacs

    Who is he kidding? Blaming the Norwalk mall? Commercial properties sitting for years in Westport with no tenants? The reason is LANDLORD GREED. It’s like selling a house. There is a market as long as you price it correctly. Commercial property owners are simply greedy and/or rich, so their properties stay vacant for years.

    • Or they were stupid. Do you know how much the old Klein’s store property sold for…because I do. Nobody can make money when you have paid crazy, crazy money for Main Street properties.

  5. Michael Calise

    I hope the advocates of metered parking are impressed by the free parking remark. Its a viable Westport advantage. Most parking authorities are the bane of reasonable peoples existence and lose money as well!

  6. Phillip Perri

    In the past, he notes, potential retailers have been “surprised at the disconnect between the number of vacant stores, and the potential.”

    The “disconnect” is not the number of vacant stores, it’s the disconnect between their perceived potential sales/profitability and the reality. Main Street may resemble Greenwich or Fairfield but do a little homework; half the population, older median age, less folks in the most important 25-34 age range, substantially smaller downtown, less in-town expenditure per capita, etc. The only thing equal are the asking rents. The rents bear no resemblance to fair market value when comparables are adjusted. The only winners are landlords and brokers with the resulting churn of tenants. Tenants that stay are the national or super regional that can withstand a loss leader as a “brand” location only. Local service businesses filling a niche may survive. Go back 20 years and list the tenants that have come and gone, both local and national. The pattern doesn’t lie, however retailers keep making the same mistake over and over. That’s why the market hasn’t forced landlords to lower their rent expectations.

    Redevelop downtown (like Bedford Sq. although more affordable) and along RT 1 with sensible, density apartments and condos to attract younger folks and provide downsizing options for older folks to open the housing stock to younger families. Only higher population and higher percentage age 24-35 will cure the on-going downtown challenge.

    • Michael Calise

      Your proposed cure is worse than the problem. Our infrastructure and services can not withstand a greater population without dramatically higher taxes, more traffic jams and loss of many other attributes which enhance the quality of life in Westport. Main Street is going through a market adjustment. It will take time but it will work itself out.

  7. ““What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room? There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity. You can smell it. It smells like death.”—Big Daddy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)

    To be fair, opinions are like… well, we all know the saying.

    Westport’s downtown woes long predate the SoNo mall. We waited years for that thing to be built, worrying every step of the way, while squandering time instead of improving downtown.

    Now don’t get me wrong, “improving” is in the eye of the beholder. And developers see “improving the value of my parcel” as the definition of improvement. That’s why Downtown Westport completely sucks, even if we know a few people have gotten wealthier off of it. Retail spaces that have a primary purpose of marketing national brands, not selling goods to people, don’t draw people in and improve the community.

    Developers won’t lower rents, lest they have less valuable assets against which they can take loans (presumably for the purposes of purchasing more over-priced assets). So, for one, let’s follow the lead of some cities by adopting a commercial vacancy tax.

    While I somewhat agree with Michael Calise that residential development downtown is not such a viable idea (more of an issue of traffic and access to the train, than anything else – new residents would, of course, pay taxes), this “market adjustment” that “will work itself out” has been going on for twenty years. It is my experience in life that problems don’t just work themselves out.

    I do think the basic layout of Downtown Westport is problematic – and I am not sure what to do about that, outside of knocking down a few buildings. Everything bottlenecks with the narrow roads. As lovely as the water is, it doesn’t do much for the strolling shoppers. Compare it with New Canaan and the differences are obvious – NC is more walkable, with less traffic, and a train station that can be reached with an easy stroll.

    (Someone needs to remind me if New Canaan parking is paid or free. We should stick with free as long as we have a semi-desolate downtown. You can charge for parking when you have a shortage of parking or a captive audience. This is not one-size-fits-all. Norwalk charges at the Aquarium, SoNo lots – Smart! Norwalk charges if you want to pick up a bottle of booze at Ninety 9 Bottles – Dumb!)

    While I am certainly in camp “let’s make Main Street pedestrian-only from Post to Elm” it will further burden (if slightly) the already unwieldy traffic situation. But we need to create more eye appeal downtown. Because if all people are going to do is shop and eat, they don’t need to come downtown. (Nobody wants to argue about the YMCA again, but that drew people downtown.) B&N is a good addition and hopefully a draw (even without the trappings of its prior spacious location). It would have been nice if MOCA had moved downtown, to be a draw, alas. Of course, a movie theater seems unlikely, given the omnipresence of multiplexes, in-home streaming that killed the revival house, and pandemic-adjusted behavior. I know I’m creating more questions than answers, but we need more ‘activities’ that will get people downtown for a couple of hours, which will motivate them to eat, shop, and make a half-day of it.

    Pardon the volume of the comment.

  8. Disappointing to see uncritical reporting of total BS from a landlord. Obviously, the issue is price. For the right price, all the storefronts in Westport would be full. The problem is landlords borrow based on too-high rent projections, then can’t lower them to what the market will actually pay without defaulting on their loans. They don’t so much care about losses, which they use to offset profits on other buildings in combination with other tax giveaways real estate investors receive.

    The major issues with downtown are: (1) it has its back to the beautiful river, (2) it is bisected by the Post Road, and (3) it is disconnected from the cluster of offices and restaurants on Rt. 33. You can’t really solve (2), but I’d propose turning Parker Harding into a park (at least partially, perhaps leaving one lane of traffic or parking somehow) with outdoor restaurant seating, etc. (which would contribute to storm resiliency significantly) and building a pedestrian bridge spanning the river in the model of the high-line. Neither of these is some huge, impossibly expensive project.

    Really tiring to hear people complain about parking (it’s easy to get spaces downtown, compared to, say, Greenwich), and about how we “lack resources” for new residents. We don’t, actually. The town clearly needs tax revenue, as judged by its poorly maintained parks, roads, and other facilities. (Go to Greenwich or New Canaan and you’d never see the overgrown weeds, cracked sidewalks, and chain-link fences that litter town property in Westport.) The idea that new residents patronizing local businesses or denser housing would lead to higher taxes is inexplicable. You see high mill rates in places like Wilton and Weston which are extremely low-density because there are fewer people to pay for everything and almost everyone has children in the local schools. Having a community with housing types that attract young people and old people who don’t have kids in school would almost certainly reduce everyone’s tax burden. And would be a good thing for the entire community, aside from that. As for traffic, the main issue I see in Westport is a few really bad bottlenecks (like Rt33/Post Road, the triangle of death, etc.) and awful, awful light timing. All eminently fixable but Westport doesn’t because it “doesn’t have the resources,” presumably. Very strange for a highly affluent town to constantly cite its poverty.

  9. Donald Bergmann

    I am upbeat for Downtown. Aspects of the excellent Downtown Plan have been implemented under the leadership of Dewey Loselle and Melissa Kane and the newest Chair of the Downtown Implementation Committee, Randy Harbertson, is also actively engaged. Upon the completion of the repaving of the Baldwin Lot next year, it is very possible that the plans in development for Parker Harding to maximize the beauty and appeal of our river will commence to be implemented. We are also still hoping to combine the Avery Lot with the Baldwin Lot. The Parker Harding effort will be exciting, Jessup Green and maybe a pedestrian bridge to the former Save the Children site are ripe for attention. Then there is also the dredging of the Saugatuck River.
    Our new next First Selectperson will be crucial and we need to hear from the candidates precisely what they want to accomplish Downtown and how that will be achieved. I expect both candidates to be competing for the prize of which one has the most vision and the greatest ability to achieve that vision.
    Don Bergmann

  10. Priscilla Toumey

    One major issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed is the flooding that downtown experiences in major storms. Too much inventory stored in retailer’s basements has been ruined, and when insurers are contacted to cover those losses a negative record is created for the building. Retailers willing to rent can access those records.

    I’m fortunate to have an office directly on the river and close to the Post Road bridge. I’ve seen the mud flats at low tide increase noticeably over the 25 years, and it’s obvious that the river must be dredged to prevent the significant flooding that’s occurred regularly downtown since the early 1990s. My office has been completely flooded twice in the past 12 years (sand and seaweed in the file cabinets!), and it doesn’t even take a hurricane to do that anymore.

    What will it take to convince Town Hall to work with the Army Corps of Engineers and state Environmental Protection Agency to get that done?

  11. James Waldron

    I would always find humor in that the announcement of another Gelato store would save downtown. As Bruce Dickinson famously stated, ‘Downtown Westport is a ghost town and the only prescription is more Gelato stores’