A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

L.L. Bean is moving out of downtown; will Renys move in?

LL Bean yesterday announced that it would be vacating its 20,000 square foot store on Congress Street, leaving a big hole in retail services in downtown Portland, according to Mainebiz.

When it opened in 1996, it was seen as a big vote of confidence in the struggling Congress Street corridor. It may be hard to believe today, but back then, just about the entire length of Congress Street was plagued by vacant storefronts, empty sidewalks, and a reputation for sleaze. Recruiting LL Bean to the neighborhood was seen as a coup in the city's revitalization efforts, and helped attract other tenants (like its next-door neighbor Olympia Sports, which moved in soon afterward) to do business downtown.

Congress Street today is resilient enough that the store's departure shouldn't be a big deal - indeed, in recent years, the inside of the outlet store seemed tattier than the street outside. But for a while, anyhow, LL Bean's departure is going to make it even more inconvenient for city-dwellers to procure reasonably-priced shoes and clothing without driving to the damned Mall. However, a large retail vacancy in downtown Portland is too valuable to sit empty for long.

The 20,000 square foot space would be perfect for one Maine company that's had its eye on the Portland market for some time: Renys. Renys is a general merchandise store (they sell towels, toys, laundry detergent, tupperware, etc., etc.) with a track record of locating stores in downtown areas and Main Streets. They've been holding out for a space that's big enough - and according to what I've heard, 20,000 square feet is their threshold.

Another long-awaited business that's allegedly searching for spaces in Portland right now is the grocer Trader Joe's. Last spring I asked a manager at TJ's Cambridge store about rumors that the chain was looking at Portland, and he confirmed that the company hoped to be operating in the Portland area by the end of 2010. Trader Joe's stores tend to be smaller than 20,000 square feet, but they could probably find some use for the extra space. For instance, the TJs around the corner from my college campus shared its space with a produce market similar to Rosemont.

The art-deco styled building (I believe it was originally a Woolworth's store) is showing its age, and it could use some work done when LL Bean moves out. And a new tenant will probably fret about parking, even though most customers will arrive on foot. But luckily, there's a city-owned garage right across Free Street, and City Hall should consider offering a long-term parking lease to tenants, like Renys, that would serve the community with affordable retail services.

Addendum (11/5): Another possibility being bandied about on Twitter is a Mardens, the surplus and salvage store. Even though a lot of people love Marden's, I can't say I'm one of them - I've found that their stores are usually a disorganized pile-up of big-box castoff merchandise. It's usually a gamble whether or not you'll find anything useful there - but then again, the same was true of the LL Bean outlet. They also seem to be aiming for bigger store sizes these days, so they may not be interested.


Elliott said...

I think the problem for Trader Joes is also parking. They apparently looked at the space in the old Portland Hall building, but the parking was an issue.

Mike said...

Unfortunately, Trader Joe's has put its plan for a Portland store on hold.