Birmingham enjoys buzz of new downtown activity
Birmingham’s downtown is looking more like a boomtown.
Several new retailers, restaurants and real estate developments are cropping up or set to open in the area in the next few months.
Experts said the influx of new businesses is the result of the city’s efforts to recruit retailers and make downtown more attractive to shoppers. The upswing in the local economy is helping.
“I think it’s a combination of all of those things,” said John Heiney, executive director of the Birmingham Principal Shopping District. The district is funded by a special assessment on commercial, non-residential properties in and around the city’s central business district.
Birmingham’s 4.7 square miles has more than 21,000 residents and nearly 10,000 homes. Residents’ annual median income is $101,529, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For years, its downtown has featured a high-end shopping district. It’s home to nearly 300 retailers, including fashion boutiques, restaurants, jewelers, salons, antique shops and art galleries.
Three retailers plan to open in the next few months.
Nina McLemore, the high-end, women’s apparel merchant, is scheduled to debut a store at the end of the month. West Elm, a modern furniture and home decor store owned by Williams-Sonoma, is set to follow at the end of September. And Alex + Ani is expected to begin selling contemporary, handcrafted jewelry this fall.
Local merchants have also been getting in on the act. A jewelry designer plans to open Karen Egren Jewelry inside the Nina McLemore store at the end of the month. Athletic footwear and apparel retailer Pogo is to open in October, moving from a store on Hamilton Row to Old Woodward. Fleur Detroit, a florist and garden design store, also is planning a presence.
New eateries are on the way, too, including 220, formerly 220 Merrill; the Mad Hatter, a bistro and tea room; and Eli Tea, a specialty tea and custom herbal blend retailer.
Beyond shops and restaurants, several mixed-use developments are planned.
Earlier this year, a Bloomfield Hills-based development company bought the 12-screen, 2,600-seat Birmingham Palladium movie theater. It tapped a new theater operator and plans to renovate the three-story building to include retail, office and residential space.
And another development company is giving the former Green’s Art Supply at 400 S. Old Woodward a makeover.
Once finished, Jonna Luxury Homes’ “The Forefront” will feature 33,000 square feet of residential space and 7,700 square feet of retail space. Each condo will be custom-built for buyers and pricing will depend on what each owner wants for their home, said Joey Jonna, the Birmingham-based home builder’s founder.
“We feel like Birmingham will always be a desirable place to live and shop, regardless of the economy,” Jonna said. “And the new retailers and restaurants that are coming in are a huge factor. It’s a walkable city in the true sense and it has everything. That’s a huge selling point.”
It wasn’t too long ago the area struggled to fill storefronts. It reeled after Jacobson’s, a major department store and the area’s retail anchor, closed the doors of its 200,000-square-foot store in 2002. The downtown’s retail occupancy rate fell to 88 percent.
The retail occupancy rate in the principal shopping district area today is about 98 percent, the highest it’s been since the agency began tracking it 12 years ago, Heiney said.
In 2009, the city’s principal shopping district developed a vision for downtown’s retail scene and hired a retail leasing consultant to recruit stores.
It also created a budget to recruit retailers. This fiscal year, that budget is about $64,000, Heiney said.
It also increased its curbside appeal, improving building facades and planting flowers along sidewalks.
“Over the last several years, the city has really increased its outdoor walkability and attractiveness,” Heiney said.
All of the effort appears to be paying off.
Edward Nakfoor, a retail and public relations consultant who does work for the Birmingham Principal Shopping District, said the area has recruited lifestyle retailers and achieved a good mix of national and local merchants.
“Birmingham looks the best it’s ever looked,” he said. “It’s a special place and its leadership is working hard to keep it that way. I like where it’s headed.”
■Nina McLemore, the high-end, women’s apparel merchant
■West Elm, a modern furniture and home decor brand store owned by Williams-Sonoma
■Alex + Ani, expected to begin selling contemporary, handcrafted jewelry this fall
■Karen Egren Jewelry inside the Nina McLemore store
■Pogo, an athletic footwear and apparel retailer, moves from a store on Hamilton Row to Old Woodward
■Fleur Detroit, a florist and garden design store
■220 restaurant, formerly 220 Merrill
■The Mad Hatter, a bistro and tea room
■Eli Tea, a specialty tea and custom herbal blend retailer