(Editor’s note: Executives at discounter T.J. Maxx considered a downtown Louisville store in 2007, but opted to expand in Southern Indiana.)
By Steve Kaufman
A downtown employer needing more office space told me recently how he chose to stay downtown – rather than going out to St. Matthews, Hurstbourne, Middletown or the Gene Snyder – because his employees just preferred the vibe of being downtown.
So young workers are downtown, and so are young residents, diners, basketball fans, music lovers, strollers and bikers.
There could be shoppers, too, except there’s almost no place to shop. No chain retailers are willing to take the plunge.
I understand how scarce good downtown retailing is in lots of U.S. cities. I lived in downtown Cincinnati, right on the river, but had to get in my car on weekends for groceries, dry cleaning, housewares, appliances, take-out food or to rent a movie. (It was a few years ago, okay?)
But Louisvillians are a different breed of cat. Downtown doesn’t scare us. We like being out after dark. The right chain retailers could be very successful here. So who might those chain retailers be?
If Urban Outfitters is successful on Bardstown Road, it might give other, similar retailers the impetus to come to downtown Louisville. I’m thinking of affordable middle brands such as The Gap, Limited, Aeropostale, American Eagle, etc. These retailers do well with small footprints and their merchandise is neither super-trendy nor terribly expensive.
We probably couldn’t make a case for a downtown Banana Republic, J. Crew or Abercrombie & Fitch (too upscale) or H&M or Forever 21 (too young). But, the last I looked, downtowners wear clothes, too. And not everybody likes the Oxmoor/St. Matthews mall experience.
I was just in Chicago, where Target has opened a new CityTarget tailor-made for urban locations.
The square footage is smaller and the merchandise is edited – don’t think of your neighborhood Super Target.
Louisville may not qualify as the next city to get one of these, or even one of the next 25 – and yet, there’s a void for this kind of retail in our downtown and Target likes voids (i.e., places where Walmart is not).
Target also likes to reuse buildings, especially classic ones. Its Chicago store is in the old Carson Pirie Scott building, a fantastic 113-year-old Louis Sullivan architectural project. Not many cities have as much grand, period downtown architecture as we do, just crying for someone to move in. And Target would be someone who would not have to introduce itself in this market. We all know and love it already.
Where do all the young couples in downtown condos and apartments go to buy bedding, towels, glassware, small appliances to fill their new homes? We might not qualify for a Crate & Barrel, but how about a nice, large Bed Bath & Beyond? It would have a captive market.
I also saw in Chicago Walgreens’ new two-story urban concept. What a store! Are you kidding? Two floors, with soup, sushi, salad bar, prepared sandwiches, wine department, touch-screen pharmacy.
At noontime, the nearby office towers spilled hundreds of people right into Walgreens’ corner store on State and Randolph to buy their lunches. And, in the process, they no doubt filled a prescription or bought toothpaste. The beauty of this downtown concept is that its expansion was all vertical. You don’t need a lot of street-level space. And I’ve got to think we have plenty of unused second floors.
Food retailing is tricky business. The margins are low and much of the merchandise is perishable, so the traffic has to be constant.
Maybe we don’t yet have the consumer density for a downtown Whole Foods or Fresh Market. Besides, if our downtown has anything, it’s good restaurants, places to go for lunch or an after-work happy hour. But perhaps as other retailing moves in, and makes downtown living more and more convenient, a small Kroger or even Whole Foods could be on somebody’s drawing board.
Chain retailers must not point to the shuttered Borders store on Fourth Street to conclude retailers can’t make it in downtown Louisville. Borders was on its last teetering, tottering legs anyway. The retail book business has been slammed during the last decade by Amazon and Kindle.
One of the things urban planners and critics like about Louisville is its abundance of independent, locally owned retailers and restaurants.
Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue (and, by the way, Norton Commons) are filled with funky, creative spots where the owner is a local resident and everybody knows your name.
But not downtown.
So let a few of these well-known, big name banners get a foothold in what is largely untrammeled territory – and do well! – and there’s no telling how our downtown could boom.