A Bucktown corridor, once a trendy retail magnet, transforms as consumer tastes change

Damen Avenue in Bucktown attracts more service retailers | Crain’s Chicago Business

A stretch of Damen Avenue in the Bucktown neighborhood once known for attracting trendy clothing stores and restaurants is becoming a magnet for service retailers.

The former home of Mindy’s Hot Chocolate is going to be an early childhood education center; a veterinary clinic is set to open in North Face’s old spot; and Chase Bank opened a branch in a long-vacant restaurant space.

The retail corridor’s DNA is changing as it recovers from pandemic doldrums, according to a new analysis from Stone Real Estate. The percentage of service retailers on the stretch between North Avenue and Willow Street surged to 35.2% in 2022 from 23% in 2021. Soft goods — including bedding and apparel — dropped to 31% from 40.3%.

“The street has just undergone a bit of a transformation,” said Will Winter, vice president of Stone Real Estate. “It speaks to changing consumer taste in the neighborhood.”

Though the vacancy rate in the corridor dropped for the second year in a row — to 19.4% in 2022 — the changing dynamic could pose a threat to that improvement. Soft-goods retailers like to be near each other. If their numbers continue to dwindle on Damen Avenue, there’s a chance they could look elsewhere, such as nearby Milwaukee Avenue, or the Fulton Market District, which has become increasingly attractive to clothing retailers.

“There’s been a fair amount of movement on Milwaukee that’s been positive,” said Chris Irwin, senior vice president of retail sales at Colliers. “It’s at the detriment of Damen.”

The former site of sneaker reseller Stadium Goods at 1719 Damen Ave. has been on the market about six weeks, and Irwin has yet to receive an inquiry on it from a soft-goods retailer. “I’ve had restaurants, coffee shops, med spas — not one soft-goods retailer or a goods retailer of any kind,” he said.

The pandemic hit Damen Avenue hard. Its vacancy rate soared to nearly 30% in 2020, doubling the sub-10% rates the corridor enjoyed between 2013 and 2016. Soft-goods retailers were already leaving the strip before, and the pandemic placed Damen at a crossroads. Would it maintain its ethos as a soft-goods hotspot, or shift? The answer to that question has become evident, Winter said.

The area first popped up as a hot retail corridor for clothing brands because it was “a really cool trade area where a lot of artists” worked, Winter said. Now, families populate the neighborhood, making it more attractive to businesses like dentists, optometrists and childcare facilities.

Bucktown’s demographics are part of what drew Bond Vet to the former North Face spot at 1629 N. Damen Ave., said Lauren Heuser, senior director of real estate for the New York-based veterinary clinic. “When we’re doing our market visits, one of our criteria is how many dogs do we see walking on the street,” she said.

Bond Vet, set to open in the next few months, was also attracted to the other service businesses populating the street.

“It was already starting to become this node for wellness services,” Heuser said. “For us and other businesses like us, we like to go where these other co-tenants are because then our customers always start to think of this as a go-to area for all those kinds of services.”

Other North Side retail corridors
Stone Real Estate’s report also analyzed the health of Armitage and Southport avenues, which it considers to be Chicago’s primary boutique retail corridors, along with Damen. The three areas are often go-to spots for brands looking to set up shop in Chicago, and their fate could influence the city’s ability to attract retailers. Such strips also bring business and vibrancy to neighborhoods — a vital task, as residents continue spending time and money near home.

The stretch of Armitage between Sheffield Avenue and Halsted Street maintained its nearly non-existent vacancy rate last year, allowing it to keep its position as the city’s premier boutique retail spot, according to the report. The only empty storefront is the former
Charlie Trotter’s restaurant.

Three vacancies that resulted from clothing store Pogo and meal kit company Daily Harvest closing and consignment shop McShane’s Exchange relocating in 2022 were quickly filled, Winter said. Jenni Kayne, Buck Mason and Todd Snyder, all clothing brands, took over the storefronts. The additions also pushed Armitage’s percentage of national retailers above 70% for the first time.

Over on Southport, vacancy rose to 4.7% last year from 1.7% in 2021, according to the report. Winter is not concerned. The only two vacancies are the former Amazon book store at 3443 N. Southport and the former Real Good Stuff at 3458 N. Southport. Both closed because of broader company-induced issues, rather than indicating trouble on the street. “All the other spaces were filled,” Winter said. “The street remains strong.”