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Renewal in works for Wellesley Square

Town initiative pays off with influx of tenants

Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe/file 2011

Sisters (from right) Kimberly and Alexis Kissam have settled in since opening Isabel Harvey in Wellesley Square last summer.

Empty storefronts are filling up again in Wellesley Square. After a steady stream of closings that left the heart of Wellesley’s downtown shopping area spotted with vacancies, new businesses are arriving.

“We’ve actually had a lot of new business,’’ said Meghan Jop, Wellesley’s planning director. “There’s certainly still a few vacancies, but we’ve seen at least five new tenants come in within the past four or five months.’’

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J.P. Licks, Isabel Harvey, Lacrosse Unlimited, and Gustare Oils and Vinegars have moved into Central Street storefronts.

Gustare sits next to the soon-to-be MiniLuxe beauty spa. Just two doors down, a new chain restaurant, Boloco, is in the works, Jop said, and the now-shuttered Hudson interior design shop across the street will become a Papyrus paper goods store.

“There’s been a lot of negative press about vacancies, and now it’s filled up,’’ said Annette Born, principal for commercial real estate brokerage firm Urban/Born Associates, who represents two landlords with property on Central Street.

“The story that looked so bad is not so bad,’’ she said.

Born said that last year, she had seven vacant storefronts in Wellesley Square. Now she’s down to two - and they are not vacant due to lack of interest.

“We’re looking for the right tenant,’’ she said. “We have people interested.’’

Last year, merchants were heading in the opposite direction. Since the end of 2010, Ann Taylor, Trappings, Clarks, the Body Shop, and Different Drummer all closed their doors.

Some storefronts sat empty even longer: Boloco’s new spot once belonged to Betsy’s, a women’s clothing store, said Jop. It has been vacant for two years.

The vacancies were new to affluent Wellesley.

“It’s something that had never happened before,’’ said Born. “It was very scary.’’

The town stepped in to try to stem the tide, creating the Wellesley Square Initiative last spring. The initiative is staffed by Jop, members of the Planning Board, members of the Board of Selectmen, Wellesley’s executive director, and the town counsel. Its goal is to bring business back to Wellesley Square.

“The Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board have really been working hard to do all we can,’’ said Jop. Their efforts include steps to beautify the area - fixing lighting and trimming trees - and have slowly increased foot traffic in the commercial district.

The officials have also worked with local artist Laura Fragasso, who solicits art from around the community to fill empty storefronts as part of the Wellesley Community Art Project she started last fall.

“It’s really been a highlight during times of transition, everyone comes together,’’ she said.

Colorful self-portraits painted by Tenacre Country Day School sixth-graders currently adorn the windows of the Central Street storefront formerly occupied by Rugged Bear, a children’s clothing company.

Fragasso said that people throughout town have come together to try to bring life back to Wellesley Square.

“When you start an initiative, and it takes off and all these people wanting it to work . . . that is a good place to be,’’ she said.

Special Town Meeting in November approved a proposal to allow restaurants with 50 or more seats to serve alcohol, instead of the previous 100-seat threshold, in the hopes of boosting business.

The special legislation has passed both the state House and Senate, according to Town Clerk Kathleen Nagle, and with the governor’s signature would be in line for a final townwide vote this spring.

“That’s a big deal,’’ said Selectwoman Katherine Babson, a member of the Wellesley Square Initiative. “What that’s telling you is the town is being very proactive, and doing what it can with the square.’’

There are still some empty storefronts. The space once filled by Thunder, a sporting goods store, is dark under its bright blue awning, with “Retail Space for Lease’’ signs in the windows. Between the planned sites for Boloco and MiniLuxe there is another vacancy.

“I think I’d say Wellesley Square Initiative is a work in progress,’’ said Jop. “I think there’s still a lot of work to be had.’’

Kimberly Kissam, owner of Isabel Harvey, a light and airy accessory shop across the street from Rugged Bear, said that as a native of Wellesley she has believed all along that business would return to the square.

“This is where it’s happening,’’ said Kissam, who grew up in town. “I know Wellesley pretty well. People come to Wellesley. Even though there are vacancies, they’ll fill up.’’

She and her sister moved their store to Central Street over the summer, she said.

“Wellesley needed a makeover. Wellesley needed young new breath,’’ she said.

Sales, she said, have been phenomenal. “I’m not sure I’d be in downtown Wellesley without a bad economy. The landlord really gave us a chance.’’

Evan Allen can be reached evan.allen@globe.com.
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