Anyone who remembers Manhattan in the 1980s would be able to tell you that one of the hottest shopping and social scenes of that moment was happening on Columbus Avenue. The East Village was bohemian, SoHo was only just beginning to transition from a gallery district to a luxury destination, and the Meatpacking District, despite the new appearance of a trendy restaurant called Florent, was mainly home not only to the actual packing of meat, but also to some very bold, gender illusionist ladies of the evening. Columbus Avenue, however, with its combination of trendy boutiques and even trendier bars and restaurants was hopping.
The 90s, unfortunately, were not kind to the Upper West Side as a combination of a harsh recession and disruptive sewage line construction robbed Columbus Avenue of much of its luster, as did the demise of its chicest anchor store, Charivari. The innovative designer boutique had two locations on Columbus as well as one on Amsterdam and another on Broadway, giving the West Side a fashion credibility it has not seen since. The min-chain was responsible for helping to launch then avant-garde designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Yohji Yamamoto, Matsuda and Dries Van Noten to New Yorkers. Think of it as the Opening Ceremony of its day, but it collapsed during the '90s as a result of overexpansion and squabbles among the family members who owned it.
Since then, designers migrated to SoHo and the downtown luxury boutique sprawl happened. While Columbus Avenue retained a few of its higher-end tenants over the years, it has transitioned into more of a neighborhoody corridor of restaurants and shops. It's still busy, but it has yet to return to its trendsetting heights. According to Crain's, however, that may be changing. A combination of high rents and scarcity of suitable spaces has made both SoHo and the Meatpacking District increasingly difficult neighborhoods for retailers to crack. They and real estate agents are looking to Columbus and rediscovering it as one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods underserved by luxury-level shops with its premium stretch anchored by tourist magnets like Lincoln Center at one end and the American Museum of Natural History at the other. Recent designer arrivals like Rag & Bone, Helmut Lang and Burberry have found success, and landlords are feeling confident enough in the street's fortunes to start pushing up rents, sadly causing some longtime independent stores like the popular pharmacy, toy and cosmetic shop Therapie (pictured above in its final days) to close.
Right now, Columbus Avenue's revival is still in its early stages. Gap Inc, recently chose it for the first New York location of Athleta, its women's workout gear chain, and the area is strong in women's contemporary fashion with a branch of Intermix as well as Club Monaco, Reiss, Comptoir des Cotonniers and a newly expanded Theory boutique. Scoop has long been rumored to be looking for a suitable space, and they would fit easily but, since we are right in the neighborhood, The Shophound has noticed some other major lapses and opportunities in the street's mix of stores. One of them is menswear. There are exactly two men's stores, longtime neighborhood fixtures Sean and Frank Stella, between the Museum and Lincoln Center, and only Burberry and Patagonia sell both men's and women's clothing side by side. Chains like Club Monaco, Reiss and Theory that sell to both genders in other locations, stock only women's clothing on Columbus, and even Rag & Bone dropped its popular men's collection from its boutique there. Designer megabrands have so far stayed away as well, and while we don't expect Gucci or Prada to show up there anytime soon, the street would appear to be a good fit for one of the accessory driven "lifestyle" boutiques that Michael Kors is liberally sprinkling all over the city.
What will eventually happen to Columbus Avenue remains to be seen, but the local Community Board has taken some controversial steps to try and limit the kind of big box retailers like Michael's and Home Goods that have appeared there further uptown above 96th street. As luxury retail recovers from the recession with much more strength than other sectors (as it usually does) Columbus Avenue is looking more and more like a sleeper of a neighborhood about to be fully reawakened.
Meatpacking district cools as Columbus sizzles by Adrianne Pasquarelli (Crain's)