Shifting balance on Route 9 in battle for shoppers

Construction continues on "The Street Chestnut Hill."
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Construction continues on "The Street Chestnut Hill."

Shake Shack’s recent opening on Route 9 has the Chestnut Hill retail scene buzzing again, while drawing nervous glances from the region’s shopping capital on the Natick-Framingham line.

With a Wegmans supermarket soon to follow at Chestnut Hill Square, some retail specialists predict tougher competition for the titans of the Golden Mile — the Natick Mall and Shoppers World — especially for coveted upscale shoppers.

“Chestnut Hill had to reinvent itself,” said Ria McNamara, who handles leasing for Natick’s Sherwood Plaza, another Route 9 stalwart. “Chestnut Hill will take some of the sales from Natick and Framingham.”


But in some ways, Chestnut Hill is simply returning the favor, with the Natick Mall having made its own bold bid a few years ago for the pocketbooks and wallets of the area’s most affluent shoppers, bringing in an array of trendy shops and renaming itself (temporarily) the Natick Collection.

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So goes retailing in Boston’s western suburbs, home to one of the largest constellations of malls and shopping centers in New England.

“Retail is constant reinvention and constant change,” said Michael Tesler, a partner at Retail Concepts, a consulting firm based in Norwell, who also teaches at Bentley University in Waltham. “You can’t stand still.”

This shift of retail buzz and momentum on Route 9 east toward Chestnut Hill follows a tough couple of years for the area’s upscale shopping attractions.

The closing of Macy’s blew a big hole in what was once the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center, while the former Omni Foods shopping plaza across the way sat desolate for years.


The owner of the Atrium Mall threw in the towel last year, selling the struggling complex to a developer with plans for medical offices. Developed in the 1980s, the Atrium’s multiple levels and bunker-like parking garage underneath the building never won over local shoppers.

But amid a punishing recession, two of Greater Boston’s top development companies, New England Development and WS Development, both based in Newton, went to work.

New England Development won approval from Newton officials for an ambitious plan to transform the remains of the old Omni Foods plaza into Chestnut Hill Square, which will feature Wegmans, retail shops, medical offices, and, eventually, a residential high-rise.

WS Development took over the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center and has started remaking it as The Street Chestnut Hill, a village-like complex aimed at affluent shoppers and featuring yoga clothier Lululemon, frozen yogurt supplier Pinkberry, and Sports Club/LA, while the old Macy’s department store has been torn down to make way for a Showcase Super Lux cinema slated to open next month.

Both bets appear to be paying off, with the combination of the Shake Shack opening at The Street and plans for the Wegmans store at Chestnut Hill Square working as a potential game changer.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff
Chestnut Hill Mall.

The twin attractions will serve as magnets for their devoted, almost cult-like followings, Tesler said.

Since its opening, Shake Shack, which had earned a reputation in the Big Apple as a go-to place for the young and hip, has attracted long lines of customers, he noted.

Randy Garutti, Shake Shack’s chief executive, said he likes the format of The Street, which gives his restaurant ample visibility from Route 9.

He also likes what he sees happening along the Chestnut Hill retail stretch, having spent three years looking for a Greater Boston site before settling on The Street.

“We believe a rising tide lifts all boats, and clearly Chestnut Hill is a rising tide right now,” he said.

And both deals have suddenly made Chestnut Hill’s retail scene much more exciting, said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, an organization that represents developers across the state.

“The Shake Shack is generating a lot of buzz,” he said. “You need to have that. People can’t wait to see what is going to happen next.”

It’s also quite a role reversal from just a few years ago, when General Growth Properties completely overhauled and expanded its Natick property, adding upscale shops and restaurants, and even a new name.

The revamped Natick Collection opened in 2007, just as Chestnut Hill’s malls and centers began to lose some of their luster.

Suddenly there was another option on Route 9 for shoppers interested in upscale retail establishments.

“They opened up at a time when Chestnut Hill was vulnerable,” Tesler noted. “It was supposed to be the epicenter of upscale shopping.”

Yet by 2011, the new name was history, with General Growth changing it back to the Natick Mall.

The Natick Mall fell short of becoming what Tesler calls “Chestnut Hill West.” That said, its anchor Nordstrom’s and other upscale stores have done well, he added.

The mall’s newest addition, set to arrive this summer, will be a Microsoft store featuring the software, hardware, and gaming products offered by the tech giant, said J. Lynn Josephson, a spokeswoman for the mall.

A spokesman for Shoppers World, which is owned by the Ohio-based DDR Corp., could not be reached for comment.

Shoppers World in Framingham.

With Chestnut Hill on the rise again, McNamara, from her perch as Sherwood Plaza’s broker, sees the need for some new and creative thinking along the “Golden Mile,” the retail-packed stretch of Route 9 on the Natick-Framingham line.

Sherwood Plaza is moving ahead with plans to convert the former BJ’s Wholesale Club headquarters at the rear of the property into new offices, she noted, and it will also soon boast its own trending burger joint: Smashburger.

It is not just competition from Chestnut Hill that has McNamara worried, with new retail options out on Interstate 495 also drawing off potential business.

But McNamara believes the Natick-Framingham retail powerhouse will be just fine, with an influx of new apartments, condos, and homes bringing in ever more customers.

“There is more and more housing being built in Natick and Framingham, and that is going to trigger the need for more retail and services,” she said. And she contends the novelty of Shake Shack and other new Chestnut Hill attractions will wear off when traffic starts to back up along Route 9 near the glitzy new shopping centers.

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.