UNION, the hyper-local shopping hub on the east side of Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix, has closed.
The news was confirmed by small business employees, former UNION leaseholders, and upper management within Macerich, the company that owns and operates Biltmore Fashion Park and other Valley retail centers. According to sources, a national women's retail chain, allegedly Victoria's Secret, will take over the space, though no one authorized to speak from Macerich would confirm the new tenant. (A previous Victoria's Secret store at the Biltmore closed in February 2010.)
"UNION is closed, but in the near future, we will announce a new retailer that will be taking space at the former location," Kim Choukalas, vice president of leasing for Macerich, said in a statement e-mailed to New Times last week. "We look forward to sharing news as soon as we can."
Since UNION's opening in November 2012, shoppers have come to expect vacancies and frequent turnover with the retailer. The goal of a full-capacity, 18-stall shopping experience was short-lived, and it was not uncommon to see an empty space beside a busy boutique. Over the next three years, businesses appeared to shutter at the same time due to similar lease schedules, leaving many to wonder if UNION itself was coming to a sputtering stop. When more than half a dozen local businesses departed earlier this year, the rumors circulated again — only this time, they were true.
"We want people to know it's not the businesses that failed," says Shawn Silberblatt, co-owner and operator of For The People, a goods and furniture shop that relocated to the Central Corridor in early April. "Everyone decided, 'You know what? It's time to do it on our own.' Everyone made it."
A cooperative-like structure with the backing of a major corporation, UNION was a partnership between Lew Gallo, former owner of For The People; Hayes McNeil, founder and principal of Plus Minus Studio and the owner of Royal Coffee; and Macerich — specifically former senior leasing manager Mary Boyd-Williams, who is no longer with the company. The idea was to nurture local retailers together, giving them each 200- to 500-square-foot open-faced stalls to grow a concept and a customer base within an otherwise successful high-end shopping destination.
The enclave opened just in time for the 2012 holiday shopping season and featured a second Frances location, Smeeks, Paris Envy, White House Flowers, Citrine Natural Beauty Bar, Trattoria del Piero by Queen Creek Olive Mill, For the People, a second Royal Coffee bar, and almost a dozen other retailers: some new, some already established.
But the next two years saw the loss of some of the UNION's biggest draws. Georganne Bryant closed her Frances offshoot and sister store, Smeeks, at the end of 2013. Paris Envy closed entirely, adding its name to a growing list of empty retailers. Eventually, UNION found itself at half capacity during the start of 2014, until new retailers Mae & Marie, Mother of Gideon, Short Leash Hot Dogs, British Bicycle Company, and Framed Ewe took over. Almost all of them relocated earlier this year.
January 31 was the final day for a handful of those remaining. Citrine Natural Beauty Bar had already relocated to a larger space within the mall. White House Flowers had left prior to Christmas and would go on to reopen at Crown on 7th. Short Leash had announced their departure. Forge, a full-service pizzeria, transferred ownership around that time (a new restaurant is expected to take over that space), while the Queen Creek Olive Mill Marketplace outpost also finished its lease. Bonafide Goods was absorbed into Clotherie, its sister store across the patio from UNION. The once-bustling boutique center was looking pretty barren.
"Literally, in a week almost everyone was gone," says Brendan McCaskey, who has been an employee for different UNION retailers since the beginning. McCaskey started with Smeeks, the Bryant-run candy store, in 2012. He went on to work at Short Leash and For The People, where he's still employed.
"After everyone left, every day we would get like, 30 questions," he says. "People would come in and [say], 'Oh my god! What happened?' and freak out. Some people would be really mean about it, like, 'I knew this would never last.' That was the rough part."
Following the new year's closures, Ann Marie Feldmann, marketing manager for Biltmore Fashion Park, told Phoenix Business Journal in an article dated February 5 that UNION wasn't closing altogether. Instead, she said, the recent departures were due to the retailer's long-touted incubation concept: creating viable small businesses that would eventually strike out on their own. That same weekend, however, Mae & Marie moved to a stand-alone location near 32nd Street and Camelback Road. Outside the Ordinary and Arizona Rub were quick to follow, adds McCaskey, going their separate ways.
(Feldmann directed all questions and requests for comment to Macerich higher-ups.)
By the end of February, Mother of Gideon boarded up shop, while Royal Coffee decided to focus on its flagship location within the mall proper, until a second Biltmore location opens later this summer. That left just For The People and Framed Ewe until a new counter-service restaurant, The Crepe Club, opened near the UNION's main southern entrance.
But after a meeting with Macerich in late February, Silberblatt and his For The People business partner, Chad Campbell, seemed to see the writing on the wall. The two started looking for a brick-and-mortar location to move the modern furniture and gift emporium, which they inherited when original owner and UNION co-orchestrater Lew Gallo moved to San Francisco for work. They immediately fell in love with a space two streets north of Central Avenue and Camelback Road, owned by architect Wendell Burnette across from the newly renovated Uptown Plaza. They signed a lease a week later and moved their last inventory out of UNION on March 31.
The store held a soft opening on April 8 and is planning a grand opening celebration later this month.
"It's a dream come true for us. We've always wanted to take For The People and expand upon the idea into a larger space, a more comfortable shopping experience, showcasing more local product and furniture," Silberblatt says. "For us, this is our dream store."
Today, The Crepe Club and Framed Ewe, an eyeglass retailer and, arguably, a major anchor, are the only operational businesses on the south and north side, respectively, of the former UNION. Both will be relocated within the mall later this summer: The Crepe Club will move next door to Williams-Sonoma, while Framed Ewe, which has taken over For The People's former space, will occupy a brick-and-mortar kiosk next to the Center Lawn.
"What they're doing in the Center Lawn is going to be awesome," McCaskey says. "That's literally the heart of Biltmore, and the thing about the east end was it was easy to be ignored. It had been so quiet for so long."
The Center Lawn kiosks will also house a second Royal Coffee and Short Leash collaboration, and are scheduled to open in early June. At 200 square feet, the Hayes McNeil-designed kiosks are still small-scale spaces, albeit in an area with far higher foot traffic. Unlike their UNION predecessors, however, they're permanent.
"We developed the UNION concept to house incubator businesses with the goal of turning them into larger, permanent locations. We are proud of concepts like Citrine, Royal Coffee, Framed Ewe, and Short Leash Hot Dogs that will soon open new spaces within our Center Lawn, as well as others that have found success," Choukalas said in a separate statement. "The concept was never intended to be permanent."
While Framed Ewe owner Christy Kimball waits to relocate a few doors west, a second Framed Ewe location is expected to open up this month in The Colony, just north of Missouri Avenue on Seventh Street. The adaptive reuse retail and restaurant development has already started opening some of its restaurants, with the shared space of Framed Ewe Optical and GROWop Boutique soon to follow.
In some ways, the successes of Framed Ewe and the now-open For The People location, among nearly a dozen others, may mean that UNION itself can be considered a success story.
"I think it was successful, [because] it was a customer coming into the Biltmore and seeing something that wasn't expected," Silberblatt says. "The unique shops, especially in a town like Phoenix where we're filled with these box chains and corporate whatever, I think that's what was very exciting about it. I think that's what was very successful about it: the pairing of that together and a dynamic situation."
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The partnership was the first to break into this sort of local-only strip-mall scene, says McCaskey, citing prominent collectives like Palabra, the new developments of The Colony and Crown on Seventh, and the near-completed renovations at Uptown Plaza.
"I honestly think if UNION had been its own separate space maybe it could've made a bigger impression as a destination spot," he says. "It probably would have felt more like your own space, and everyone's own space together. This is ours; we made this, and this is how we can keep it going."
Even if the space is returning to its high-end, big-box-store roots with this new development, some can take heart that UNION's three-and-a-half-year experiment made an impact on the Valley's local retail scene.
"I think what's cool is we don't need the UNION anymore," says Silberblatt, sitting in a chair in the back of his new spot at 5102 North Central Avenue. "The whole city is almost becoming — at least, the central corridor of Phoenix is becoming — a larger version of that. There's so [many] exciting things happening in Phoenix that [weren't] even here four years ago: little plazas like Crown, like Colony, like Uptown Plaza. That's what's really exciting; we feel like we're a part of that now."