Alissa Mermet looks at the empty storefronts on the Arlington Center block where her family’s Argentine restaurant stands and wonders if her business is next. Though business at the restaurant, Tango, is booming, Mermet is facing a series of rent increases that begin next month, part of a pattern in the business district that has forced some shops to close or relocate.
“We would prefer to stay if we were able to. If it’s going to keep going in the way that it’s going, I just don’t see how that’s possible,” said Mermet, whose rent will increase by $500, to $8,950 in August, and then another $300 annually for the following four years. “I think we have an expiration date.”
A bustling commercial strip with a thriving community of small businesses, Arlington Center is being abruptly rocked by rent spikes and an unusual run of storefront vacancies. The business district typically has very few vacant storefronts, but now more than a dozen sit empty — many of them next to each other.
Diners enjoying a late outdoor lunch on a recent sunny afternoon outside of Common Ground on Broadway were flanked by three empty storefronts that used to house a fitness studio, a CVS pharmacy, and an art gallery and gift shop. The vacant storefronts have been building over the past few years, and the most recent were caused by rising rents, said Beth Locke, executive director of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.
“The center is in a bit of an aberration right now,” Locke said. “It’s unfortunate, but there are specific reasons for it. I don’t see it as a sign of an economic issue in the town or any sort of lack of interest in shopping and doing business in Arlington. It’s primarily a landlord issue; entirely a landlord issue.”
While town figures show rents for retail space in the center increasing to around $28 a square foot, the real estate firm Colliers International said it has detected some pricey leases here — upward of $50 a square foot, similar to prices in nearby Watertown and Somerville.
“It’s not surprising,” said Aaron Jodka, Colliers’ director of research. “Arlington is a very transit-accessible location. It’s been a very popular location, with very high incomes. With that comes a demand for retail space that landlords can potentially capture higher rents.”
Approximately 10 of the empty stores are owned by three landlords, who combined control about $6 million worth of commercial real estate in the center, according to town records.
Most of the storefronts have only recently become vacant, but one has sat empty for about three years, said Alyssa Clossey, who helped start a group, Support Arlington Center, to bring attention to the vacancies. As long as the storefronts continue to remain empty, fewer people will want to come to the center, she said.
Clossey said the three landlords have too much control over the business district and worries they will sit on the empty properties until they find tenants willing to pay the higher rates.
“People are very, very upset and are confused,” Clossey said. “Arlington’s been flourishing with growth in terms of our [residential] property values over the years; we can’t even keep property here on the market because they get snapped up. So why is it we have 11 to 12 empty storefronts in Arlington Center?”
One of the landlords, James Cohen of Marco Realty, which owns the strip of spaces on Massachusetts Avenue that includes the restaurants Tango and Sweet Chili, and two empty storefronts that housed a frozen yogurt eatery and an optometrist shop, declined to comment.
The other two landlords Diane Poulos Harpell of DPH Realty, and Patricia Simboli of ACS Development, did not return calls seeking comment.
Many residents pointed to a block of five storefronts on Mass. Ave., four of which are vacant, owned by Poulos Harpell’s company as the most obvious exhibit of what is ailing the center. The block is near other vacant stores and recently housed a candy store, hair salon, craft store, and flower shop. The only remaining business is a jewelry store.
Simboli’s trust owns a strip of storefronts along Broadway, including the spots housing Common Ground, Madrona Tree, and Arlington Optique Boutique, bookended by three empty storefronts.
The landlords have been called in to meet with Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine to offer updates on their plans for the empty storefronts.
After meeting with Cohen, Chapdelaine said he was “confident” Cohen “wants to put people in the storefronts,” but said the landlord is holding out for types of businesses that don’t already exist in the center.
Chapdelaine also met with Poulos Harpell and said the landlord “did not have an approach that could be described as hurried.” Simboli has yet to meet with Chapdelaine.
Although he called the increased vacancies worrisome, Chapdelaine said the town has limited authority in the situation.
“It’s one of those things where storefront vacancies are a part of the business cycle,” he said. “The clustering [of vacant storefronts] is certainly something new. . . . But there’s still a tremendous diversity of businesses in the center.”
Tanya Abraham is looking at the end of a five-year run for her popular farm-to-table breakfast and lunch spot, the Madrona Tree, on Broadway. Abraham said she is being forced to leave because of rent increases and other costs and said her business relationship with Simboli, her landlord, is poor.
“I’m part of the chaos that’s going on in Arlington Center with the landlord fiasco,” Abraham said, adding it’s difficult to find a new location that isn’t owned by one of the three landlords. “They rule the roost here.”
Clossey, of Support Arlington Center, said the group is scheduled to meet again with town officials Aug. 11 about their conversations with the landlords, and that town officials have said they would hold a townwide meeting about the issue in the fall.