Trend Piece: Chains Swamping Walnut Street Due to High Rent

The Inquirer‘s fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington spoke with longtime Walnut Street style doyenne and shop owner Joan Shepp this weekend about what she’ll do now that she’s being priced out of the store that made the street chic to begin with. While Shepp isn’t sure where she’ll go next (we’ve heard rumblings about Chestnut Street; also, 15th Street), she certainly can’t afford the rent now charged to the “average 2,000- to 2,500-square-foot store…about $22,000 to $34,000 per month.”

In truth, Walnut Street has been expensive for a long time. In 2005, Women’s Wear Daily put it on a list of the most expensive retail streets, and reported that its average rent was $90 per square foot. (It’s now between $130 and $160 per square foot.)

Don Davidow, co-owner of Knit Wit, which moved to Chestnut Street, told Wellington: “Independent, local boutique owners just can’t afford to be on Walnut Street anymore.” And indeed, many of the newcomers are not independent: Intermix, the coming-soon Madewell, Stuart Weitzman, Theory, and potentially J. Crew menswear and C. Wonder.

But is the hammer of doom being lowered too quickly? The idea that Walnut Street is going from some funky, independent, bohemian space to the new King of Prussia may be overstated. The truth is, there have always been chains on Walnut Street, and some have made it while others closed or moved to other streets. Puma, Max Studio, Benneton, Esprit, Kiehl’s, Lush, Waterworks, Design Within Reach, Origins…the list of Walnut Street chain exiles goes on. And in the case of Kiehl’s, it was replaced by A-Bar rather than a chain.

Additionally, when it comes to real estate investment on the street, it’s overwhelmingly local. Most recently, Pearl Properties purchased 1401 Walnut and Allan Domb bought the commercial condos at 10 Rittenhouse Square. Even some local tenants–Lagos, Govberg Jewelers and Holt’s—hang in there.

But is local always better? Joan Shepp’s merchandise is exquisite, but far out of the price range of many Philadelphians and the people who work in the city’s downtown. Or take a look at the old department store Nan Duskin, which was extremely exclusive. It’s now an H&M, which is as affordable, and thus democratizing, as it gets. A Rittenhouse matron would prefer a locally owned fancy department store. A thirtysomething law student will likely find a trip to H&M more appealing.

It’s an important ritual: the Decline of Walnut Street media story. But let’s not pretend it was ever the East Village.

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