With brick-and-mortar retailers facing challenges, even the most upscale shopping districts are feeling pressure to shift their approach. One such case is Boston’s Newbury Street, sometimes referred to as “Boston’s Rodeo Drive,” which has adopted the Open Streets Project strategy to bring back business, adding parklets and car-free days, among other strategies.
A mile-long (1.6 km) stretch in the Back Bay running from Massachusetts Avenue to the Public Garden, Newbury Street consists of eight blocks of shops, salons, galleries, and cafés. For decades it has been the place to go in Boston for serious shopping, whether the object is luxury goods from stores like Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana, and Chanel; fast fashion from the likes of Forever 21 and Zara; or funky, one-of-a-kind items from local shops like Crush Boutique.
But in the past few years, there has been some rumbling that Newbury Street was not keeping up with the times. “There do seem to be a lot of vacancies there,” says Michelle Landers, executive director of ULI Boston/New England. Several media outlets have noted the street’s large number of empty storefronts and a vacancy rate as high as 10 percent, although that figure is not confirmed.
In part, the changes on the street are probably the result of competition. Just around the corner, the Prudential Center and Copley Place mall have been reinvigorated. Also, the city as a whole is changing: downtown has regained some of its shopping cachet, and the Seaport neighborhood is now a full live/work/play destination with plenty of room for new retailers.
Meanwhile, on Newbury Street, no significant new development has taken place in many years. The retail spaces are located in 19th-century rowhouses, which are quirky and charming but also relatively inflexible. The shops tend to be smaller, with floor plates that are harder to transform. Many are located up narrow flights of stairs.
And Newbury Street largely lacks the kind of new, dynamic restaurants that drive a lot of traffic to neighborhoods nowadays. That might be due to zoning rules and opposition from residents to potentially loud, crowded eateries that are open late. It likely is also the result of high rents stemming from some of the steepest property values in the city: in 2017, Newbury Street rents were the eighth highest in the country, according to a report by Cushman & Wakefield.
Shopping destinations everywhere have managed to energize their image by incorporating new, participatory activities—“omnichannel experiences and what people call ‘shoppertainment,’” says Liz Berthelette, director of research at NAI Hunneman, a Boston-based real estate services company. “They’re bringing people in with live music and restaurants and virtual-reality experiences and these different things to get people out and about and actually in a brick-and-mortar store.”
However, Newbury Street is not particularly amenable to those kinds of experiences, says Chris Talanian, director of business development at Boston-based C. Talanian Realty, which has owned a large portfolio on the corridor for decades. “Newbury’s not one single owner; it’s not a lifestyle center where someone controls the ecosystem and can do Art Fridays or other events to drive the atmosphere,” he says. In addition, the street has narrow sidewalks and there is little room for other activities.
As a result, the neighborhood “isn’t where the youngest residents go,” says Landers. And over the past decade, retailers have responded. Apple located its store on nearby Boylston Street, not Newbury, and Gucci and Saint Laurent, both of which seem like a natural fit for the longtime shopping street, have also gone elsewhere.
But three years ago, the city, together with the Back Bay Association and individual retailers, launched a continuing initiative that has proved successful in invigorating the street. Part of a growing Open Streets movement, Open Newbury Street closes the avenue to vehicles and turns it into a pedestrian zone for three Sundays every summer—the last this year to occur September 9.
The initiative aims to give consumers a new way to experience the street—“the opportunity to take this street and turn it more into a place to be—not just going to visit a particular store or a particular restaurant, but a destination in and of itself as a place to go,” says Jacob Wessel, who works for the mayor and was behind the launch of Open Newbury Street.
Landlords and retailers on the street were unsure about the project when it was first suggested in 2016. “It was quite controversial,” says Wessel. “There were concerns about their customers who drive in from the suburbs and utilize street parking. Others worried it would bring in people to hang out but not shop.”
But Wessel and his partners worked to ensure that the street closing would benefit store owners above all. Unlike a street fair with dozens of vendors, Open Newbury Street was limited to existing merchants and food purveyors. And the city made it easy for businesses to participate, providing streamlined permits that allowed them to take advantage of the outdoor space with clothing racks or chairs and tables.
The street closing occurred just once during the first summer and was a huge success. All the businesses reported increased walk-in business, and most reported higher sales—some double those of a year earlier. The next year, Open Newbury Street was held three times and was again enthusiastically received, with a 150 percent increase in pedestrian traffic over that of a regular weekend.
The event’s popularity has continued this year, with still more merchants participating and an increasing number of activities available. The city rolls out patches of artificial turf dotted with colorful Adirondack chairs, and games like cornhole and four square are available for anyone to play.
“Open Newbury allows people to enjoy the street in a much more relaxed way,” says Cassandra Knight, owner of Castanet, a designer consignment shop. “It’s a great way to introduce our business to new people, especially since we are located on the second floor of Newbury. I wish it happened once a month!”
New this year is a mobile parklet that occupies two parking spaces and gives pedestrians a place to sit and unwind. Designed by landscape architect Kyle Zick and sponsored by the real estate company Jamestown, which manages several properties on the street, the site includes seating and planters. It has been located outside a coffee shop, though it can be moved.
“The parklet adds a fresh way to engage with the historic street and a new outdoor experience for some of the best food purveyors in the district,” says Michael Phillips, president of Jamestown. One of the first parklets in Boston, this one will remain on the street indefinitely.
The street’s business people no longer doubt the efficacy of Open Newbury Street, Wessel says. Instead, they are clamoring for more, and are aiming to try out new activities like a bocce court or live music. The project has led to a new way of envisioning public space.
The street closings and parklet are not a magic bullet for a longtime shopping area that has perhaps rested on its laurels too long and become a little stodgy. But they mark the start of a gradual shift to reenergize the street and keep it lively in a retail environment that has become increasingly competitive.