Is UNION at the Biltmore in Phoenix Half Empty or Half Full?

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Disheartening. There really isn't another word to describe the feeling of walking in through the back entrance of UNION at the Biltmore. The last weeks of February have been warm, and unseasonably so -- the kind of weather conducive to leisurely patio lunches and coffee catch-ups that morph into all-afternoon affairs. Yet the small outside courtyard of wooden tables, created for just that, is strikingly empty and devoid of chatter.

A lone barista mans the coffee stand at the opening of the corridor, directly across from an uninviting former restaurant plastered with green liquor license application notices and hopeful signs declaring "coming soon!" It's the post-lunch rush, and no one is milling about inside. No browsing. No window shopping. It's dark, wooden, and looks like a boarded-up ghost town: another promising concept killed by lack of interest, lack of steady business, and seemingly absurdly high turnover.

But looks can be deceiving.

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The barista, Jenni Bill of Phoenix, has worked at Royal Coffee's mini-shop at UNION for three months. And in those three months, she says, the excitement from shoppers hasn't wavered.

"A lot of people walk in and they're like, "Wow! Look at this," she says, gesturing around.

Bill attributes the sudden lack of storefronts to the end dates of individual leases -- not extraordinary circumstances. It's a big spot for tourist shoppers, she adds, because the concept is so inviting.

When Biltmore Fashion Park announced it was opening UNION, a one-stop shop for hyper-local boutiques, the move was hailed as innovative. Social media and local media buzzed in the months leading up to its November 2012 debut. Publications (this one included) devoted ink to its prospects, piquing the curiosity of many Phoenicians. There would be grand-opening parties and giveaways and a busy holiday season ahead.

So, how did such a promising retail project go from full of bustling boutiques to 50 percent capacity within 14 months of opening those wooden doors? And is the glass really half empty or actually half full?

In a city as unpredictable for local business owners as Phoenix, these empty storefronts churn a slow-growing worry that UNION will succumb to the same fate as countless other independent retailers across the Valley. For Christy Kimball, owner of Framed Ewe, which has been at UNION since it opened, that fear is misplaced.

"I could see how that could be the perception, and I had that thought for a moment myself, too, but I would completely disagree with that now," says Kimball, who owns the eyeglasses retailer, arguably one of the anchors of the mini-mall. "The idea of UNION is that it is a stepping stone. It's an opportunity to be in a mall like this [and] to grow and to evolve."

Lindsey Andersen-Kohrt, owner of British Bicycle Company, another one of the remaining original shops, had to do just that. She restructured her business slightly to meet the needs of a customer she didn't expect. But it was a process she learned over the course of a year as a small business owner, she says, not because she had to struggle to stay afloat.

"We've had to change our focus," she says. "We realized that the mall was a really gift-centric mall, things that people can bring with them on the plane because we found that a lot of tourists come to the mall there."

In addition to a variety of British-made bicycles and cycling gear, the retailer now sells British candles and trinkets. But it also capitalizes on a tourist's desire to purchase something "made in Phoenix" by featuring posters from downtown's annual Pedalcraft event and other local goods -- the kind of retail UNION was designed for.

The idea: a hybrid of street-front window shopping and major mall traffic.

The collaboration: a joint effort between Macerich, the owner and operator of the Biltmore and numerous other Valley retail centers; Phoenix retailer Lew Gallo, who runs the gift shop For the People in the UNION; and Hayes McNeil, founder and principal of Plus Minus Studio and owner of aforementioned Royal Coffee, which has two Biltmore outposts. (Both For the People and Royal Coffee are still operational within UNION.)

The concept: create an outlet for independent small business owners to nurture their creations, develop a customer base, and ultimately flourish beyond the three-walled stalls. Create a neighborhood shopping experience inside a high-end, centrally located fashion mall. Sandwich 7,200 square feet of retail space in between two well-known restaurants, Seasons 52 and Stingray Sushi. See what happens.

"UNION is a perfect place to start, but it is also a perfect place to continue as a small independent who wants to remain small and build the business at that size," writes Mary Boyd-Williams, senior leasing manager for Macerich, in an e-mail. "The goal was to always keep it fun and fresh, and that was partially why the leases were shorter in term."

UNION's 18 initial stalls ranged from home goods to candy shops to beauty products, all aimed at a younger, more diverse shopper than the Biltmore typically brings in.

Each store, in 200 to 500 square feet of space largely identical in layout, was asked to sign a one-year lease -- a general low-risk request compared with a traditional three-year lease. Of those 18 stores, half either have left or changed owners -- as was the case for Framed Ewe, which took over a space first occupied by concept store Me, Myself and Eye.

"Traditionally, the Biltmore Fashion Park has been a mall that caters to a clientele of baby boomers and older people in the area that have a higher income and are shopping for the things that they like," Andersen-Kohrt says. "The goal of UNION was to bring a different clientele: families and young people, and I think that was an uphill battle from the beginning."

British Bicycle Company got a firsthand glimpse of the battle. She not only wanted to open a store but also create a showroom for bicycles from England, and the UNION space seemed an ideal fit. Today, the store sells high-quality bikes from across the pond by companies like Pashley ($1,295 to $2,395) and Moulton Bicycles (anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000) but also consumer-friendly accessories like bags and helmets.

"Introducing these bikes to Phoenix, we knew that people were going to be a little bit shocked at the price," Andersen-Kohrt says. "But as soon as they see the bikes and look at the quality, they're like, 'Oh, okay -- I get it. They're unique, they're really well made'."

"We thought we'd be received best at a place like the Biltmore Fashion Park, where traditionally there's been a lot of high-end brands and high-end merchandise," she says. "The clientele that comes through there may not turn up their noses at the price as much as at another location."

Though the price tags may be steep in comparison with other local retailers, it hasn't necessarily caused a detraction in repeat customers. Framed Ewe sells shades from brands like Moscot and Oliver Goldsmith, which can cost anywhere between $275 and the low $400s, and continues to get return business.

"We're a destination now. We have a lot of returning customers, a lot of word-of-mouth customers [who] come in and walk straight to our store, but we're not alone in that," Kimball says, going on to mention Citrine Natural Beauty Bar and Queen Creek Mill's Oils and Olives as stores with similar consumer bases.

When owners Jason Moore and Laurie Lavy of Paris Envy, a home-store destination with a rather distinct following, made the decision to move from a 2,000-square-foot space in the Melrose District on Seventh Avenue, it was because they thought they could work around the smaller size and were looking to shake things up.

"[But] by the end of our first year there, we just felt like our concept and our vision didn't really translate there," Lavy says. "I think part of it was the shopper. We didn't know a lot at the time, but there are a lot of tourist shoppers that want to run in and pick up something and put it in their suitcase."

The décor store since has translated to an online-only store through Etsy, and though Lavy admits she misses having a stand-alone space, having the freedom of an online platform allows the business to create the kinds of custom lighting pieces they became known for.

"I have nothing but the most hope for UNION as far as a concept. I hope it does take off," Lavy says. "Obviously, I feel pretty passionate about small business and small business owners. I feel strongly that that's the one thing that differentiates any city from another. Everybody has a Pottery Barn, you know?"

Paris Envy is just one empty space in a long and growing list. Lilly, Whoopie Baking Company, Frances, Smeeks, and, most recently, Queen Creek Olive Mill's Trattoria del Piero are among the original shops that have shuttered.

Bonafide Goods, Citrine Natural Beauty Bar, Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill Oils & Olives, R&R Surplus, and White House Flowers round out a list -- admittedly of similar length -- of nine original businesses that are still in UNION. Each opened that winter of 2012.

Of the shops that closed, some chose not to renew the yearlong lease that initially attracted them. Others, like Georganne Bryant's closure of her Frances offshoot and its sister store Smeeks, were the result of personal decisions made for health and family reasons.

One, the women's boutique Lilly, became a success story, transforming into a full-blown retail space, Cashmere and Coco Boutique, inside Biltmore Fashion Park directly across the courtyard from its old UNION location.

"UNION was designed with short-term leases -- this was always part of our thinking about the concept -- and unfortunately several expired at the same time," Boyd-Williams writes.

The lack of staggered lease-end dates left the retail space suddenly looking sunk and bare, all exposed wooden fixtures and nothing to show for it. But those "coming soon" signs? The ones that give the initial first impression of the retailer gasping for breath? They're really just the second wave in a much longer process.

"As with any shopping center, retailers do come and go, but our intent is to always keep UNION fresh and exciting and fill this distinctive retail setting with fresh concepts that will truly complement the existing retail mix," Boyd-Williams writes, citing Citrine Natural Beauty Bar as one of the original retailers who recently expanded thanks to a successful first year.

"To be honest, I kind of had a heart attack at first," Framed Ewe's Kimball says of all the closures. "And then it was like, 'Oh! Now we have this really cool mix of people coming in."

That cool mix of people includes, among others, a baby boutique, Juicd Life, a cold-pressed and made-to-order juice bar, and a hotdog stand.

Short Leash Hot Dog owners Brad and Kat Moore will be opening their pop-up restaurant Short Leash Short Lease in the space vacated by Trattoria del Piero.

The two were approached by UNION, Brad Moore says, who asked if they would like to occupy the space on a short-term four-month lease until a new tenant (whose name remains under wraps until the paperwork is finalized) moves in starting in July.

"It gives us an opportunity to reach a new demographic and clientele," Moore says, adding that the two are excited about this new mini-venture.

The hotdoggerie, which has a devout following courtesy of its brick-and-mortar location, Sit... Stay, on Roosevelt Row and two mobile food trucks, is taking over without renovations or a high overhead. With the kitchen facility already in place and an interim beer and wine permit, the duo plan to open shop on Friday, February 28.

"The space is amazing," Moore adds. "We've always liked it. It's a risk-free opportunity, a win-win."

The arrival of Short Leash Short Lease immediately follows the grand opening of another new business along the UNION's largely vacated west wall -- one that will hopefully bring back a client base that has dwindled in recent months.

"Smeeks and some of the other shops did a great job of bringing a lot of new people in," Andersen-Kohrt says of her former neighbor. "Since they left, I think there's been a big decline of kids and families. But it's kind of tricky. You have to figure out what works there."

Mae & Marie may be the new answer. The "haute hub for mini and she" opens its doors today. The mommy-and-me boutique, featuring fashions from Autumn Cashmere, Hudson, Junk Food, and more, is the second boutique from Amy Yount -- and a homecoming of sorts. Yount, who runs Amy, inc in Old Town Scottsdale, is no stranger to the mall.

Amy, inc's first home was at the Biltmore back in 2005 before making the trek farther east four years later. The women's clothing destination highlights an obsessive attention to detail and personal shopping assistance -- concepts that are sure to be present in its younger offshoot as well.

Retail rumors are circulating, and unique his-and-hers jeweler Mother of Gideon may be the next new leasee. By late March, with the addition of these two spaces and a few more about whom Macerich is staying mum, UNION will return to nearly 80 percent occupancy.

"I think that anybody that's still here is here because they ran their business well and it just works for them," Kimball says. "I think this is going to be a really great year for UNION. I've seen my numbers go nowhere but up."

UNION is located in Biltmore Fashion Park, 2502 East Camelback Road in Phoenix. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Visit online at www.shopbiltmore.com/union or call 602-955-8400 for details.

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