Independent Retailers Reign on King Street
Despite large firms moving in, data show boutiques and other independent businesses clamor for King Street.
While big name chains like H&M, Anthropologie and White House Black Market are causing community concern that Old Town is losing its small town charm and entrepreneurial spirit, new data shows that 80 percent of King Street is home to independent retailers.
That’s an uptick from 77 percent in 2010.
The vacancy rate for King Street in Old Town for the fourth quarter of 2012 is 3.4 percent and new boutiques make up approximately 30 percent of all new retail along King Street over the last four years, according to data provided by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.
Lower King is seeing the highest vacancy rate with 4.9 percent at the end of last year. Middle King (Washington to West Street) shows about a 2 percent vacancy rate for fourth quarter 2012. Upper King (West Street to the Metro), which has tenants such as Olio, Le Tastevin and Sugar Cube, shows only a 1 percent vacancy rate.
Restaurants make up about 25 percent of the Old Town market, similar to Del Ray’s 24 percent and slightly lower than 30 percent in Carlyle.
“We believe that’s a balanced mix of retail and restaurants,” says Christina Mindrup of AEDP, a group that helps businesses move to town and keeps tabs on the city’s economic growth. "It's something we're always working on."
Mindrup says there’s a misperception that national retailers are taking over Old Town.
In an Old Town Alexandria Patch Facebook post announcing national clothier White House Black Market was moving into the space currently housing a rug store at 903 King St., readers commented: “Soon King Street will be all chains” and “Hey fellow Old Towners – welcome to Clarendon II.”
Mindrup countered to Patch: “Does a rug store with constant clearance and going out of business signs help the vibrancy of King Street? Who is going to rent out 4,000 square feet of space? There are larger blocks of space that don’t make a lot of sense for a smaller shop to move into.”
For example, when chain Restoration Hardware left Old Town in early 2012, H&M became the new tenant. Ritz Camera has shuttered and locally born but nationally bred beauty shop Blue Mercury is slated to open soon.
Some small businesses have had to close or move due to the rising rental rates – a steep 50 percent increase over the last four years.
Whistle Stop Hobbies moved to Alexandria’s Fairlington neighborhood near King Street and Quaker Lane from Old Town, but artist Todd Healy quickly snagged the vacant corner spot. Whistle Stop owner Frank Kozuch told Patch increasing rents and hard-to-find customer parking were some of the reasons he made his move across town.
But independents often swap out in smaller storefronts. Independent boutique Lucky Knot quickly snapped up the space vacated by Conrad’s furniture store on lower King near Union Street, for example. Lucky Knot owner Andrea Ploutis, who also owns King Street boutiques 3 Sisters and Andrea's Boutique, said when she opened the shop she chose the location for its heavy tourist traffic.
Rates range from $40 to $60 a square foot in the desirable lower King Street area, which is comparable to some Arlington neighborhoods. In Georgetown, rates average about $100 to $125 a square foot.
“A lot of communities are trying to replicate what Old Town already is,” Mindrup said.