Empty shops cause concern in downtown Lake Oswego
Take a stroll through Lake Oswego's downtown core and you'll find what appears to be an unnerving trend: Suddenly, there's a swath of empty storefronts.
In the past three months, at least four local businesses have closed or announced that they will be closing soon, including Lady Di's British Store & Tea Room on Second Street, the Patrick James men's clothing shop in Lake View Village, Simply Precious Jewelry and Gifts on A Avenue and GP Kitchen on B Avenue.
Two other Lake View Village tenants — UU Yogurt and Blast Burger — have also shuttered, although Garden Bar and Pizzeria Sul Lago have already promised to take their place.
Graham's Stationery has been gone from Second Street for a while, as has the Firestone auto repair store on A Avenue. Much of Oswego Village on State Street sits empty, too.
Is business really that bad in downtown Lake Oswego?
It's not, says Bob Martinsson, a Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce board member and co-owner of Glance Optics and Eyewear.
"There has always been turnover in storefronts in downtown Lake Oswego, just as there is in any retail area," Martinsson told The Review this week. "If you went to Lake View Village alone and looked at the past five years, you'd see a flux in storefronts. There are some storefronts that have been there the whole time, such as Chico's and Sur La Table and Rumi Simone. And then there are others that have had turnover."
As an example, Martinsson points to the popular Italian restaurant Zeppo, which reopened as Holy Taco after an extensive renovation. UU Yogurt and Blast Burger will follow a similar path in the next several months.
Tim Mattera, general manager of the former Blast Burger and Five Spice Seafood and Wine Bar, said the move to renovate Blast Burger into a pizzeria was actually spurred by the closing of Zeppo, which had a non-compete clause within Lake View Village.
"That was always our passion. We've always wanted to do a pizzeria," Mattera said. "It's going to be wood-fired pizza. The oven is from Italy and it's going to be like if you went to Naples, but all the local ingredients."
Mattera explained that Pizzeria Sul Lago will take an honest approach at serving neopolitan pizza in a casual setting. He expects the eatery to open sometime in February.
Over on Second Street, Lady Di's recently closed and building owner Harry Meader is now in the process of renovating the space and finding a new tenant.
"We don't have anyone lined up, but we have had a lot of people express interest," Meader said. "We might get someone, but at the moment there is no one planning to go in there. We're looking for someone who might be a good tenant and make it worthwhile."
Next door, extensive renovations are also underway at the former Graham's Stationery. The shop has sat empty since owners Paul and Teri Graham retired from the family-run business in 2015; a new tenant is rumored to have signed a lease, but the Grahams have yet to release the details.
Some observers have pointed to construction of The Windward as the cause of the turnover. When it is completed in the first quarter of 2018, the mixed-use project will contain 200 apartments and nearly 42,000 square feet of commercial space, but it has put a crimp on parking in the city's downtown core.
Assistant City Manager Megan Phelan said this week that after receiving several complaints, the City created a map of available public parking to ease concerns over the construction's disruption in the flow of customers visiting area businesses.
"We understand that over the past couple months, parking has been a challenge. What we hear from businesses is that not only do their employees find it hard to find parking, but patrons do as well," Phelan said. "Myself and another team member have met with business owners and talked to the Chamber about identifying solutions, but it's a challenge."
Martinsson insists, though, that construction and parking issues are not to blame for the recent closure of several area businesses. Instead, he says, each business had unique circumstances that lead to the decision to shut its doors. Martinsson notes that when The Windward fills up, there will be a net positive in the number of new storefronts and people on the street. That will drive vitality in Lake Oswego's downtown and should translate into increased viability for existing businesses, he says.
"When you look at a development like Lake View Village, businesses move out and new businesses move in. There's regular turnover and that's typical, it's natural," Martinsson said. "When you look at some of these smaller, independently owned buildings, that same turnover happens there. It may not be as obvious, but it's the same. It's not a trend."
Chamber of Commerce CEO Keith Dickerson said he agrees with Martinsson's conclusion that downtown Lake Oswego is seeing heightened turnover in isolated situations that don't indicate a larger force at work. However, he also believes the area isn't the easiest place for a new entrepreneur or business owner to open, considering high rent rates and City planning policies that require some finesse at navigating.
"As a business advocate, when we talk to people who come into our membership, we're told that there are some unique challenges. The rents are higher than a lot of other places because of the quality of the community — landlords know they can ask a premium price for the space they have to offer," Dickerson said. "When you have that combined with difficulties that our new business owners have to jump through with the Planning Department, that can make it harder, especially when you're a new entrepreneur or business owner and you don't have a lot of experience working with planning and realtors.
"Nobody wants to say it," he added, "but it is a reality we face."
Dickerson says that while The Windward might have added some extra headaches for business owners and their customers, the completion of the development will be a huge boon, not only to the new businesses that occupy the building — Salt & Straw, Bamboo Sushi, Adorn women's boutique, Starcycle and Chuckie Pies have already signed leases — but also the other small businesses that share Lake Oswego's downtown sector.
"That's what so many are holding their breath for, and I think we'll have a good return on our hopes," he said. "The Chamber endorsed that development in hopes that would be the outcome, and we're in agreement with the City that mixed use is a great combination for downtown."
But what downtown businesses really need, Dickerson said, is a loyal and consistent customer base — not only shoppers who live in Lake Oswego, but "an infusion of out-of-area traffic as well."
"That's why the City and Chamber are working together to create that kind of draw into the community, whether that's Lake Grove or downtown or any number of business centers across Lake Oswego," he said.