A Tale of Two Broad Streets

The farther east you walk down Broad Street and away from VCU, the more beat up and empty it gets. There are “For Sale” signs, “For Lease” signs, and signs simply marked “Closed.” Some buildings are boarded up with plywood, others with construction paper and tape.

And that’s a significant improvement from even a few years ago.

The stretch of Broad between Shafer Street and 4th Street (near the Convention Center) has a vacancy rate above 30%, according to a BizSense tally.

Last week, BizSense counted vacant buildings in Carytown and concluded that drag has around a 13% vacancy rate.

Now we’re turning it into a series, “Better know a district.”

On this particular stretch of Broad Street – which starts in the west with VCU buildings and a mix of chain restaurants and turns into an assortment of art galleries, luncheonettes, pawn shops and boarded up storefronts farther east – there are 163 store fronts. (Second and third stories were not included in our calculation because we cannot determine if there are functioning businesses). There are 108 occupied storefronts / offices. Twenty-one are vacant with “For Rent” signs, and 26 have the remains of a business of some sort, but show no signs of life. Eight are under repair. VCU-owned buildings, such as dorms and offices were not included in the calculation.

Because darkened storefronts may not technically be vacant, since the tenant could be paying rent and or the landlord may not be actively listing the space, our surveyed area of Broad Street has a vacancy rate of 19%. That figure does not take into account square footage — a small storefront counts the same as a big one.

Perhaps most telling, nearly 33% of the buildings do not have actively operating businesses. By comparison, the vacancy rate for office space in the Central Business District is 8.2%, according to a first-quarter report prepared by the commercial brokerage firm Thalhimer. Broad Street’s vacancy rate is also well above the 3.5% vacancy rate for retail space in the City of Richmond, as reported by Thalhimer. (Second quarter figures aren’t posted yet.)

It’s also more than twice the 13% vacancy rate in Carytown.

“There’s a general conception that this area, because of its proximity to VCU, is a Gold Rush of sorts,” said Scott King, co-owner of the Common Groundz coffee shop at 734 West Broad. “People think that no matter what they sell, they’ll be prosperous.”

BizSense previously documented Common Groundz’s struggles in a story here.

King said a lot of the stores that open quickly, close just as quickly. A cereal shop recently failed, as did a digital gaming café. “They don’t make sense for this area,” King said.

“You just have to ask, have they really thought this through?”

Connie Nielsen, a vice president at Thalhimer who specializes in retail real estate, said the lack of parking is partly to blame for the high vacancy rate.

“Especially for people in a hurry, there’s just no viable parking,” Nielsen said. She also said business owners asses a location’s visibility and attractiveness and determine how it might help or harm a potential business.

Many of the parking lots in the area are owned and controlled by VCU. Anyone who parks there without a VCU parking permit risks getting a costly ticket or towed. Businesses say that’s a deterrent to no-pedestrian traffic, and puts the strip as a disadvantage compared to its suburban counterparts.

Said King: “There’s a huge parking dilemma; we’ve tried to talk to city officials, but there’s no concrete solution for it.”

As a consequence, the area relies on pedestrian traffic.

But King said that those businesses who can sustain themselves for the next few years will see huge dividends later on.

“We’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg. I’m hopeful.”

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