In recent weeks, Panera Bread closed its location at 1711 Murray Ave., and Barnes & Noble Booksellers acknowledged that it planned to close its location at 1723 Murray Ave.
The closing of two national chains — both tenants of the same block for more than a decade — mixed with a slate of empty shop fronts on Murray and a rental sign on a storefront intended to be a part of the Forward Square project seems to signal a trend.
The question is: What’s the trend?
Observers of the Squirrel Hill economy say they’ve heard rumors about rising rental rates in the neighborhood, but don’t believe it to be the cause of the closings and vacancies.
Instead, they say a tough economy is making life hard for local businesses, and forcing national and international chains to reconsider old business models.
“In lean times, generally they’re the first ones to pull the plug and say see you later,” Councilman Doug Shields, who represents the southern half of Squirrel Hill, said about larger national chains. “They have to deal with this in a more universal manner.”
Shields and others point to signs that the Squirrel Hill business district persists despite a tough retail market and historically low consumer confidence: Forbes Avenue is currently 100 percent occupied, and new small businesses continue to fill vacancies on Murray.
In recent weeks, Dunkin’ Donuts opened at the corner of Forbes and Shady avenues, and the Christine Frechard Gallery, an art gallery with language classes, opened on Forbes. Crazy Mocha Coffee Co. opened a new location at the corner of Murray and Hobart.
There is talk of Levin’s Furniture planning to open a location on Forbes, while a women’s clothing store called Zipper and Blues is opening further down the block and a yogurt shop called Raspberry Fresh is opening around the corner on Murray.
Those overlapping trends — a few big national companies leaving, some open shop fronts remaining vacant and the introduction of new businesses to the area — is all part of the dynamic nature of the neighborhood, according to Jim Reich, a past president of the Squirrel Hill Merchants Association and former Squirrel Hill business owner.
“We run these open fronts in cycles over the years,” Reich said.
Reich believes the current turnover and vacancies in Squirrel Hill has more to do with larger forces in the economy than local forces in the neighborhood. “The rentals in Squirrel Hill are much more reasonable than Shadyside and probably the Waterfront,” he said. “The rents are OK. The landlords are reasonable. … It’s just the times.”
National companies operate under a different logic than locals, according to Erik Wagner, chair of the commercial development committee of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition.
He noted that car dealers once dotted Squirrel Hill before the industry moved dealerships near major highways. He said Panera & Barnes and Noble might be making similar shifts in their business strategies.
Like Reich, Wagner believes the rents in Squirrel Hill are reasonable. And if not, he said, then the vacant offices and storefronts on Murray will remain vacant until rents drop.
“If they’re raising rents, they’re getting it,” Wagner said.
The community nature of Squirrel Hill also impacts its commercial real estate market, he added. When a building owned by a family for generations is reintroduced onto the market, the new owner purchases the property at new market values, forcing rents up.
Shields agreed that rental rates aren’t to blame. “There are all sorts of rumors about landlords soaking businesses,” he said. “I found nothing to support that contention.”
The pending departure of Barnes & Noble creates a vacuum in Squirrel Hill. With Panera Bread gone, Squirrel Hill still has many other restaurants and cafes where people can get bagels, bread and sandwiches, and sit with friends over coffee, Reich said.
But no bookstore in Squirrel Hill?
“That’s hurtful,” Reich said.
The opening could create an opportunity, though.
“Sooner or later, somebody’s going to fill that need,” Wagner said. “I don’t know any neighborhood that would have more of a need than Squirrel Hill.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 687-1006.)