By Bridget McCusker – September 20, 2021
Walking down Mamaroneck Avenue, residents, commuters and visitors might notice several changes to the retail landscape, especially if they haven’t visited the business district since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
After a tough year and a half for the area’s downtown retailers, many businesses were lost for good, and all is not yet quite back to normal.
The Business Journals’ review of the White Plains central business district along key blocks of Mamaroneck Avenue, Main Street, Martine Avenue and East Post Road during this summer showed about 28 retail storefronts to be without tenants, and five or six more to be in the process of opening a new business in their respective spaces.
The area has seen cycles of high vacancy or occupancy rates throughout the years, in addition to changing demographics of tenants.
As Covid hit New York, not only were many businesses mandated to shut down, but many also saw changes to business and their customer bases even after lockdowns were lifted. White Plains is a large commuter center and businesses that once benefited from populations such as commuters and students from local universities struggled to bounce back.
“I think that White Plains is caught in the same web as Manhattan,” said Howard Greenberg, president of Howard Properties Ltd., which specializes in commercial real estate services in Westchester County. “For instance, you know, with people not coming (to downtown White Plains) for the most part, these businesses are going to suffer.”
Small businesses have been especially affected. The area said goodbye to several restaurants over the past year and former banks, convenience stores, opticians, barber shops, travel agencies, tattoo studios and other former business spaces remain vacant, although some were vacant even before the pandemic struck.
“There’s no question that during the pandemic, it’s small service businesses and small food businesses and things like this that have been most adversely affected in the retail sector,” Greenberg said.
“There have been times over the years when I’ve done the same count and there were maybe one or two stores available on Mamaroneck Avenue between, let’s say, Main Street and Maple Avenue. That’s kind of the heart of the downtown retail district. But I think it’s probably fairly obvious that that it’s primarily a pandemic-related impact.”
Greenberg expressed optimism that the business district would return to normal levels of occupation, although new lifestyles brought about by the pandemic could change the nature of the businesses present.
“I think downtown White Plains will be fine,” he said. “I think retail will take longer to come back to its level than the office space as well … but I think that once the office buildings get repopulated, if people are out on the street again, it will help to repopulate the retail (sector).”
While visually the business district still looks to be struggling, Kevin Nunn, special adviser for the White Plains Business Improvement District, said Covid recovery is certainly happening. But much of that recovery is still behind closed doors, as landlords and tenants negotiate new leases.
Nunn said that the count of 28 empty storefronts is not totally accurate in terms of recognizing businesses that are currently completing the processes to rent, and estimated that vacancy in the business district is fewer than 20 storefronts when ongoing negotiations are taken into account, although BID has not taken an official tally since last December to January.
“Back in December and January, when we walked up the street and surveyed the retail spaces, we counted about 259 ground floor storefronts,” Nunn said. “And at that time there were 51 storefront vacancies. So (around 30 vacant storefronts is a) huge improvement. But also, I would say that estimate is probably high because we are aware of a number of storefronts that are in contract or have leases signed and executed.”
Negotiations for retail space leases can take as little as two months or up to half a year, in some cases.
Nunn reported feeling more worried about the issue last winter, but expresses much more optimism now at the prospect of downtown retail recovery.
Most of those storefronts are small spaces, but Nunn said that he believes a larger issue at hand is that larger stores and businesses are exiting the White Plains area, which leaves spaces that are more difficult to fill.
Large swaths of the White Plains Galleria are now vacant, and the mall is without an anchor store after the closings of Sears in February of this year and Macy’s later on last spring.
White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach told the Business Journals this past June that the city is preparing for major changes at the site of the Galleria, although there has been no formal proposal yet. Some unconfirmed reports were circulating at the time that Pacific Retail Capital Partners, owner of the Galleria, had been considering replacing the anchor store structures with residential towers or a combination of residences and a hotel. Pacific had directed the anchor tenants to vacate to make room for new projects, according to Roach.
The former Walmart and Burlington Coat Factory on Main Street, a space owned by Ivy Realty, also remains vacant for the time being — with no future plans yet proposed.
“The bigger issue may be the, you know, the largest spaces like the Macy’s and others that are going to be in a redevelopment project that will take time,” Nunn said. “And that’s part of a national thing, with Macy’s across the country closing stores.”
Increase in potential clients
For at least one prominent commercial real estate manager, business has reportedly been brisk.
Bonnie Silverman, CEO of Silverman Realty Group and chair of the White Plains Business Improvement District Board of Directors, said that her firm is currently “gung ho on retail,” seeing an influx of interest in downtown White Plains retail properties, coming from everyone from national brands to mom-and-pop shops.
“I don’t think there are more vacancies than usual,” Silverman said. “I don’t think there’s an excessive number. I mean, I don’t really keep track of the actual numbers of all the vacancies, but visually when I walk down the street, I don’t see that there’s more than any other typical time.
“I currently have four vacancies in retail vacancies in our portfolio and I have deals going on for every single one of my spaces. So if I get all those deals signed, I will be fully leased retail-wise … We’re very active in getting retail leasing inquiries.”
Silverman noted that the condition of each space matters in attracting tenants, but overall, she thinks White Plains is an attractive area for new and expanding businesses, especially considering new residential projects in the area, including some right in the thick of the commercial district.
Among those are The Mitchell now being built at 131 Mamaroneck Ave, and the 134-unit apartment building recently proposed by developer RMS Cos. of Stamford for 51 S. Broadway, vacated years ago by Frozen Ropes baseball and softball training center. Several residential projects have also been proposed for former office buildings along Westchester Avenue.
Along with the creation of more housing, Westchester County’s population is rising steadily and hit 1 million for the first time in this year’s census data, surpassing estimates by over 30,000.
“White Plains has a lot of potential new residential projects on the drawing board,” Silverman said. “And I think that is very attractive to retailers. I think some people have had lifestyle changes during the pandemic and have opted to live in the suburbs as opposed to the city. And I think that puts new people into our area who want to open businesses locally.”
Silverman said that inquiries regarding food and restaurant space have been popular lately, and her firm is mindful of creating a diverse tenant mix in its properties in the business district. Although she can’t yet comment on all of her firm’s new tenants, she said that new tenants such as a nail salon, 914 Exotics and Cravin’ Jamaican Cuisine are some that she is most excited about.
And while many businesses across the city and even the country have fallen to hard times, many entrepreneurs are still going through with openings and expansions.
Aside from the ones Silverman mentioned, many restaurants and businesses have opened over the past year in the district or are set to open soon, such as Falafel Place, Papi’, Chaz Palminteri Italian Restaurant, Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse, Mamasushi, Qosqo Inka and Farida Skin Care.
White Plains Common Council Member John Martin, who also owns a business, All New York Title Agency, in downtown White Plains, said that in addition to Covid recovery, new development projects and those restarted after pandemic-related delays could be linked with local business growth.
“It’s clear that Covid had a negative impact on the downtown and just as clearly, we’re seeing a recovery from that,” he said. “At the same time, we have so much going on in White Plains now and with so much of the downtown residential coming to life, there’s absolutely a corresponding benefit in the commercial vacancy rate and the number of restaurants that are opening, or different types of food services that are opening, and obviously that goes hand in hand with residential. There’s just a heck of a lot of activity downtown compared to just six months ago.”
Martin pointed to projects such as the 177-residential unit mixed-use development site in construction at the former White Plains YMCA; the 334-unit Mitchell apartment complex, which is also in construction on Mamaroneck Avenue and Mitchell Place; the former Esplanade Hotel and senior living facility at 1 and 10 Lyon Place, which is being converted to apartments; and the long-vacant Frozen Ropes site at 51 S. Broadway, as projects he is looking forward to seeing added to the downtown landscape.
“We have so much good going on, we’re starting the comprehensive planning process and I’m looking forward to the next few years in our city,” he said. “In the recent census figures we just hit roughly 60,000 people, so obviously White Plains is growing and growing in a very measured way, and a very positive way, so I’m looking forward to the next few years in our city.”