A year ago last week, I had my first meeting with the team at WS Development, the real estate firm that has been orchestrating the buildout of the bulk of the Seaport’s retail corridor. At the time, there wasn’t much retail to speak of — just 4 percent of the potential storefronts were built and occupied at the time, according to the company — but there was a vision. And it mostly hinged on the success of One Seaport.
As Boston’s largest mixed-use development in three decades, One Seaport’s two-building complex on Seaport Boulevard acts as an entry point to the emerging waterfront district, with more than 250,000 square feet of retail space over two city blocks.
“We’re filling a huge void,” Todd Norley, WS’s head of retail leasing, told me during that meeting last year. Historically, he said, many retailers have struggled to grow in the city.
“Even if you did really well in the Back Bay and Newbury you had nowhere to go,” Norley said. “We’re building some nodes complimentary to that.”
One Seaport’s ribbon cutting was back in November, and in the months since, retailers large and small have been slotted into its storefronts. WS has been doing its part to amp up the excitement — and foot traffic — in the form of free fitness classes, a pop-up outpost of the Boston Public Market every Wednesday, and landscaping along the median that slices through the neighborhood.
Last weekend marked the opening of two disparate businesses that epitomize what the Seaport hopes to become from a commercial standpoint, says WS senior vice president Yanni Tsipis. Outdoor Voices, the buzzy, venture-backed company that sells exercise gear, celebrated its first store in the Northeast with a “dog jog” — a made-for-Instagram canine-friendly jaunt along the waterfront. At the same time, Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, a 68-year-old Harvard Square institution, opened its first outpost outside Cambridge at 95 Seaport Boulevard.
Coming on the heels of those openings, the developers have announced that WeWork will set up its 10th co-working space in the city on the second floor of 77 Sleeper St., within the One Seaport complex. Outdoors outfitter Filson, David Chang’s Fuku fried chicken joint, and a Fjallraven gear store are scheduled to open in the coming weeks.
A year after my sit-down with WS, I wondered if the Seaport is finally starting to reach critical mass as a retail destination. Or to tweak an oft-cited “Field of Dreams” reference: If you build it, will the shoppers come?
So I reached out to Thasos, a real-time location tracking firm with MIT ties that uses GPS data from smartphones to map foot traffic patterns of people going into and out of a given region. In this case, it could be workers, shoppers, or people living or visiting the Seaport. Thasos’s data on the Seaport found that foot traffic increased 26 percent in December over the same month in 2017, and was up about 18 percent this spring compared with the same period last year. Things have been slowing down this summer, however — as of last month, foot traffic hovered at about 2 to 3 percent higher than in 2017.
How does this shake out for retailers? I recently spent an afternoon strolling through the nascent neighborhood, and saw some promising signs. Pedestrians flowed in and out of stores and were lined up waiting for lunches. Katharine ReQua, co-owner of the For Now pop-up boutique, says that her store’s foot traffic counter has actually been steadily ticking upward as the temperatures have been rising.
“Up until about May we were seeing 50 to 60 people a day. Now we’re seeing 150,” she says. “And on weekends, we’re seeing 400.”
Pam Kemper, assistant general manager of the Mr. Sid men’s clothing shop on Northern Avenue, says most of her customers are coming in on their lunch breaks, and skew more to the millennial end of the spectrum than anticipated. That means the store is selling fewer suits than its original Newton Centre shop, but makes up for it in sneaker sales and separates like trousers and jackets. “We’re right on target with our goals,” Kemper says.
Along those lines, the North Carolina-based menswear store Peter Millar had a “strong opening” following its Memorial Day launch, according to store manager Michael Orlandella, though he’s seen a slight drop in weekend foot traffic so far this summer. Still, Orlandella reports that more shoppers are starting to view the Seaport as a shopping destination.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “It’s the nicest, cleanest area of the city.”
That newness is what tempted Tyler Haney, founder of Outdoor Voices, to open up shop in the Seaport rather than Boston’s other more established retail hubs. “Our mission with OV is for people to be active on a daily basis, and with the mix of tenants in the Seaport — offices like WeWork and residential and restaurants — we saw that there was going to be consistent vibrancy,” she says. “It’s not like the Financial District where people go home and it’s a dead place after 6 p.m.”
And it’s what also made Kim Wilson, co-owner of Cardullo’s, willing to venture beyond Cambridge. She’s got more space in the Seaport, which means more ovens for hot sandwiches, a larger selection of beer and wine, the addition of spirits, and the opportunity to serve breakfast for the first time.
“We love the legacy of the Square, but we’re excited to be able to expand and we know that the Seaport is a great place to establish a new neighborhood,” Wilson says.
“What’s really been important is getting the mix of national retailers with some of the more local operations,” says Brian Dacey, veteran real estate developer and current president of the Cambridge Innovation Center, who worked under the previous mayoral administration to help establish Mayor Thomas Menino’s vision for an “Innovation District.”
Dacey acknowledges that the neighborhood has its architectural critics — too many boring glass buildings and pedestrian unfriendly expanses, they complain — and says he’d still like to see a grocery store open. But overall, Dacey says, WS has been doing its part by “adding street life and placemaking” to help transform the area from the “wasteland” he remembers into something far more livable.
Tsipis acknowledges that some of the entertainment outposts and restaurants in One Seaport are still gaining traction. “It’s simple math — the whole neighborhood is a work in progress, and we’re not even a third of the way done,” he says. “The pace of change is rapid but a lot is still very much underway.”