Wood Street block Downtown advanced as 'fashion row'
Share with others:
For six years, Trendy Trousseau, a New Castle-based women's clothing and accessories retailer, has done the bulk of its business over the Internet and by appointment.
Now owner Summer Wise is looking to branch "into the world of bricks and mortar." And that's what brought her to Downtown Monday evening to hear a pitch about opening a store as part of a new "fashion row" on Wood Street. "I'm interested to see what is offered here," she said.
Ms. Wise was one of an estimated 35 regional boutique owners or designers to attend a reception sponsored by the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp. and a task force created by the mayor to enhance retail in the city center.
Between drinks and hors d'oeuvres, the pitches came from retailers who have found success Downtown, including surprisingly strong Saturday sales, and from an official involved in a plan to potentially offer free parking on weekends and evenings in an effort to compete with suburban shopping complexes.
Those who showed up to listen included existing Downtown retailers like Larrimor's; trendy neighborhood or suburban outlets like Carabella, an Oakmont-based clothing and accessories store; and Footloose Shadyside, a women's shoe and accessories store; as well as Web-based businesses like Ms. Wise's and bel monili by l.marlane, which sells handcrafted jewelry and accessories.
John Valentine, executive director of the Downtown CDC, said the goal was "to get boutiques that are not Downtown to consider Downtown."
The city hopes to create a women's fashion district, the brainchild of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation president Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., along Wood Street between Fifth and Fourth avenues. The foundation is negotiating with the city Urban Redevelopment Authority to buy two buildings at 420 and 422 Wood.
Mr. Valentine said some seven spaces ultimately could be available for boutique clothing and accessory stores in the corridor. He and others envision Wood as a complement to the men's fashion hub that has developed in the block of Fifth Avenue between Wood and Liberty Avenue.
During Monday's reception at The Capital Grille, Mr. Valentine told the owners and designers they were witnessing "the beginning of the beginning" of the three-year effort to transform the corridor.
The next day he said he was impressed with the turnout, reporting he already has received requests from a handful of people who want tours of the area. "I honestly think that for the first night our goal was to see how many people seriously were interested, and the news has been great on that front," he said.
Ms. Wise was intrigued enough that she plans to make an appointment to tour. She also would like to know what the city has to offer to help boutiques get off the ground Downtown.
"I definitely want to research it further and talk to them," she said. "It's definitely something of interest."
To her, the key to the project's success is to have more than one store involved and to have variety. That, she believes, would create a draw for shoppers, both daily and weekly. Nonetheless, she's not ready to dive in headfirst just yet. "I'm very cautious, but like I said, it could be a good opportunity."
Curiosity also brought out Kristy Picard and Jenn Lementowski, owners of Reflect, a clothing store in Robinson.
By Tuesday morning, Ms. Picard was "still a little bit skeptical" about the idea, but interested enough to want a tour. Like Ms. Wise, she believes there's safety in numbers.
"I feel the only way to draw a crowd would be to have all the spaces filled by boutiques to make it a group effort and to make it more of a destination spot," she said.
One retailer that has made a go of it on Wood Street is Boutique la Passerelle, a women's clothing and accessories store.
Co-owner David Chzaszcz told the gathering that the store has been successful since it opened three years ago. He said it has benefited from a steady clientele and a growing Downtown residential population "looking for something different, they didn't want another dollar store."
Contrary to what some might suspect, he said, one of boutique's strongest sales days is Saturday. It also gets a lot of business from Ohio, as well as referrals from some of the men's stores Downtown, he said. "I think there's a partnership [among Downtown retailers]," he noted. "Everybody wants to survive. Everybody wants to grow."
Mr. Chzaszcz said Downtown still needs stores for college students and young professionals; "stylish" plus sizes; women's shoes; lingerie and fittings; and bed and bath fragrances.
One thing that has helped his business is the $5 parking on weekends Downtown. Mr. Valentine said some retailers are working with the city on possible free parking on evenings and weekends.
Even so, some still aren't sold on the idea of operating a business Downtown. Before Monday's meeting, Carol Kinkela, owner of Carabella, said convincing her to open a boutique Downtown would be "a tough sell."
By the end, she liked the vision that Mr. Valentine had cast but still had doubts about whether it was for her. As much as she wanted to help, she said she prefers to do "one [store] right rather than three wrong."
Nonetheless, Ms. Kinkela did not close the door entirely. She sensed great potential for the corridor with PNC Financial Services Group's new $400 million headquarters opening in 2015.
"I could feel the energy on that corner, which I love, and perhaps I would consider something down the road," she said. "I definitely love the energy I'm starting to feel."
First Published May 2, 2012 12:08 pm