Driving towards Rye’s Central Business District from the south, one notices the picturesque Village Green with its lush green grass and children enjoying the long summer days.
By Gretchen Althoff Snyder
Driving towards Rye’s Central Business District from the south, one notices the picturesque Village Green with its lush green grass and children enjoying the long summer days. The library stands tall as a lovely brick building where residents young and old congregate. Behind the Village Green, you can see the white gazebo that commemorates those residents tragically lost on 9/11. Then comes the Square House, a vital piece of history and a classic example of Rye’s storied past.
Drive a little further into town and it hits you: from one end of Purchase Street to the other, and along downtown Rye’s quaint side streets, there are currently 15 vacant storefronts (five have plans for a new store in the future), 18 restaurants/eating establishments, six banks, six hair salons, and five nail salons. While it is certainly a luxury to be well fed, perfectly coiffed, and have easy access to cash at all times, why is Rye unable to attract and maintain a diverse and vibrant retail environment? One of the stores on Purchase Street has been vacant for almost five years, while two others have been vacant for almost three. Are the rents too high? Are residents not supporting our retail shops but rather shopping online or in malls? Is parking a deterrent for shoppers and potential new businesses? Or is something entirely different affecting the vitality of our downtown?
Margaret Ricketts, President of the Rye Chamber of Commerce, believes that overall, people are cutting back and shopping less, and when they do shop, they often resort to the Internet or malls where they can do easy one-stop shopping. Because of this trend, Ricketts feels that we need to keep Purchase Street “alive, vibrant, and diverse,” so that shoppers will be drawn to our downtown for their shopping needs.
Since the rents tend be high, Ricketts suggests that instead of allowing stores to stand vacant for years, landlords might consider allowing “pop-up shops” to lease the space for shorter periods of time to test out the retail environment for their products. She believes this arrangement could be a win-win situation, as stores that are currently vacant would be filled, at least temporarily, and businesses could test the environment, achieve name and product recognition, and build a loyal client base. Ricketts also envisions some type of co-operative business as a possibility for these vacant storefronts, where different retailers could join together to rent space in town and defray some of the costs associated with running a small business.
Ricketts stressed that although the City Council has repeatedly encouraged the landlords of vacant stores to clean up the area around their property, these requests do not always produce results. In fact, several of the vacant buildings fall within the newly created downtown historic district, and Ricketts hopes these owners will now have an added incentive to renovate the properties to attract new businesses in the future.
Rob Woodrow, owner of R&M Woodrow Jewelers, has been in business in Rye for 30 years. He has seen many businesses come and go over the years, but he feels strongly that parking is a key factor in our downtown’s decline. Woodrow says that since the City of Rye installed parking meters for downtown lots ten years ago, pedestrian traffic on Purchase Street has steadily declined. In fact, he says he does not even get half the foot traffic in his store that he got prior to the installation of the parking meters. Woodrow believes that having to wait in line to put money in the meters (which are frequently broken) is a strong deterrent, and it’s easier for shoppers to go to Bloomingdale’s, where you can park your car and walk right in.
“People don’t just pop in to the store quickly anymore,” and Woodrow believes parking is the key reason. In addition, he wishes that shop owners would park in the lots behind town, instead of along Purchase Street, as he feels open spaces along the main street should be available for the shoppers. “I often see the same car parked on Purchase Street all day long, and that can potentially deter a shopper who might otherwise drop into a few of the downtown shops.”
In nearby Larchmont, where vacant storefronts are also an issue, residents recently joined forces in a group called Love Larchmont. Co-founders Tiffany Smith and Amy Sullivan started the grass roots group in an effort to “promote and revitalize the local shopping and dining districts, beautify the Village, and foster a spirit of unity and camaraderie among the residents of Larchmont”. Smith and Sullivan founded the group in June 2015 after two large retail stores that had been in Larchmont for over 25 years closed their doors.
After meeting with the Larchmont Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor, the group sent out an online survey to better understand resident’s shopping needs. Several individuals were also asked to keep a “shopping diary,” recording details of every shopping excursion for two weeks. Based upon the 1,200 responses, Smith and Sullivan agree that Larchmont needs more stores to “draw shoppers in and make Larchmont a destination shopping town.” Love Larchmont has also coordinated with the Chamber of Commerce to promote Date Night Larchmont, where all shops are open late and there are musicians, and special promotions in retail shops and restaurants. Although the group is just getting started, with over 1000 followers and numerous volunteers, Smith and Sullivan are hopeful that Love Larchmont will help revitalize the shopping district and make their downtown a popular shopping destination.
Rye has a charming, quintessential downtown with numerous local businesses working hard to keep their shops open. Shopkeepers and residents are hoping Rye can attract diverse new businesses and actively support local merchants to facilitate and maintain a vibrant, bustling business district.