A look at downtown Allentown's ever-changing retail landscape

Jon Harris/The Morning Call - Sage and Aquarius, two upscale clothing boutiques that were among the original retailers to open along the ArtsWalk, are planning to close in downtown Allentown in February, the latest news in the city's ever-changing retail landscape.

While replacements for the two stores have not been announced, new construction is continuing downtown, which will open up additional retail space. For example, City Center Investment Corp. spokesman Jeff Vaughan said that up to six new storefronts will open in Strata East, an apartment complex at Sixth and Linden streets slated for completion in the spring.

"Although we're not ready to officially announce all the new retail plans on the ArtsWalk, we will be in the very near future and we are excited for the expanding retail environment," Vaughan said.

So far, that retail environment has included some concepts that have stuck, and others that have been short-lived — not an uncommon dynamic in a downtown in the midst of a major revitalization and still searching for the right mix of businesses to mesh with its demographics.

"There is trial and error in every business environment," Jarrett Laubach, City Center's leasing manager, told The Morning Call in January after American Hairlines and Popmart closed downtown.

He continued: "What's most telling is the number of inquiries we get from businesses that want to be here." Indeed, as Blow Dry Bar by ReVive! Salon quickly replaced American Hairlines, and RE:find opened an art gallery in the old Popmart space.

Retail analyst Jeff Green, owner of Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix, said turnover in urban areas that are being redeveloped is not uncommon, especially with new restaurants. And turnover isn't a bad thing, he added.

Local business owners like to test and open new concepts in cities being revitalized, Green said. The rent for a business to open in the city is typically cheaper than it would be in a mall, giving the new venture more flexibility.

"If you make a mistake, it's not as expensive of a mistake," Green said. "The mistake might just be that it's not what folks are looking for, and so you try a different format."

New businesses also are drawn to revitalized cities, he said, because they want to be "part of a happening place" that appeals to young people. But younger customers want something unique and different — not high-end, Green added.

"They can't necessarily afford an expensive women's dress or a Shula's price point," he said.

And the high-end apparel industry is not doing well across the country to begin with, an environment that's even tougher to navigate if you're an independent boutique, according to Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a New York City retail consulting and investment banking firm.

But, in general, Davidowitz said, millennials want to live downtown and, consequently, they want to shop there out of convenience. So, as City Center continues to construct two new apartment buildings at Sixth and Linden streets to complement nearby Strata Flats, the people who end up landing an apartment downtown will dictate what shops stick around. 

But, in the meantime, don't expect the retail experiment in Allentown to stop and wait for them to arrive.

"What is the most attractive store proposition today?" Davidowitz said. "It's urban."

Here is an overview of some of the changes and turnover in the downtown retail scene over the past year:

•Pasta Alla Rosa, a longtime Italian restaurant at Sixth and Hamilton streets, closed in December 2015. Its building has since been demolished to make way for Tower 6, a planned 12-story office condominium complex. 

•Shula's Steak House, which moved from the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, abruptly closed its doors in January after only six months downtown. That space is now occupied by Queen City BBQ.

•American Hairlines and Popmart, two Bethlehem institutions that expanded into downtown Allentown in fall 2015, closed their doors in January. But both were quickly replaced, with Blow Dry Bar by ReVive! Salon taking over the American Hairlines space and an art gallery run by the RE:find home-furnishing boutique filling the void at the old Popmart space.

•Women's clothier Linnet Collections opened in February at 13 N. Sixth St., helping to bring new life to the long-vacant Americus Hotel.

•Tony Luke's closed its doors on Hamilton Street in February, but that void was filled by Vince's Cheesesteaks, which opened in the space less than two months later.

Cafe Vida opened in early May at 19 N. Sixth St., toward the back of the Americus Hotel and next to Miller Symphony Hall.

•Wok Box Fresh Asian Kitchen, a fast-casual pan-Asian chain, opened in June at 818 Hamilton St., filling the space previously occupied by Fegley's Burrito Works and Coffee Works, which closed in 2014 after a fire.

•Aug. 25 was a day when downtown Allentown finally got its pharmacy back. Rite Aid opened a 12,000-square-foot store that day on the ground floor of Strata Flats at Seventh and Linden Streets, giving downtown residents — and especially the residents of Center Square Apartments — the pharmacy that had been sorely missed since Rite Aid's longtime Hamilton Street store was razed to make way for the PPL Center.

•In September, George Haddad, owner of Sage and Aquarius, merged his women's shoe store, 7th & Sole, with Sage. That vacancy created by 7th & Sole on the ArtsWalk was quickly filled by Roey's Paintbox, which opened in mid-October.

•Coal-fired pizza eatery Crust closed in September, but its space at 701 Hamilton St. was quickly converted into a new concept called 99 Bottles, which opened in late October. The space got its name from its offering of 70 bottled and craft beers and 29 bourbons, scotches and whiskeys.