Greenwich Lean Time

“For the last couple of years, businesses have been telling me they’ve seen a decline in the foot traffic on Greenwich Avenue,” said Ms. Morrison of the Chamber of Commerce.

“Fortunately, we have not experienced what other retailers have experienced,” said Ian Murray, co-owner of Vineyard Vines, a regional retailer that hawks preppy ties and jackets to teenagers bound for Deerfield or Princeton.

The big money—or rather, the big new money—started arriving about 15 years ago, strapped to the backs of the hedge funds that started staking out Greenwich. Even if the hedge fund guys couldn’t quite crack the Round Hill Club, and were often kept dangling on the brink of Greenwich Country Club, they knew how to do one thing perfectly: build massive houses. And to accommodate last-minute baubles for the wife, Greenwich rung in the new millennium with a spanking new 6600 square foot Tiffany & Co., installed in an imposing historical building. Before long, advertisements for $20,000 Patek Philipe watches appeared on the train platform. “The diamonds got bigger; that would be the number-one change,” said Mr. Betteridge. “Watches became more exotic and expensive.” (He noted that his store has, on and off, been the biggest Patek Philipe retailer in the country.)

Of course, it was not the wealth so much as the interest in spending it that changed. “Nobody bought a new car,” Mr. Betteridge recalled of his Greenwich childhood. “When anyone got a new car, you’d all go look at it. You didn’t really spend a whole lot of money other than on keeping the yard nice.”

But as the acquisitive habits of the hedge fund crowd became the stuff of legend—a recent drive past the palatial waterfront digs of Paul Tudor Jones II—No. 334 on Forbes’ list of billionaires this year—suggests they have not been exaggerated—high-end retailers smelled fresh meat.       Of course, one could argue that the meat was already going bad by the time many of them finally signed leases, remodeled and opened stores on the avenue in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

“I remember when Woolworths was on Greenwich Avenue,” said Nancy Lombardo, who has lived in Greenwich for 35 years and was power-walking the avenue in a white Yankees cap and black exercise pants. “I miss Pier 1. It was a fun store, prices for everybody.” She said she doesn’t shop at the new wave of New York shops, but has noticed that restaurants are “empty. They keep closing and restructuring their menus, and when they open, they’re more affordable. It would be nice to see Greenwich Avenue get back to basics. The rents are just ungodly here, everyone talks about it. Maybe that will change with the economy.”

Brokers said it hasn’t yet. The avenue has already squeezed out the Gap, Banana Republic, Pier 1 and soon Ann Taylor with its $160-per-square-foot rents, untenable for mid-priced retailers without New York-caliber foot traffic. (Rents have approximately doubled in 10 years and are the highest in Connecticut, but still paltry by New York City standards).

“In many cases [the buildings] are still owned by heirs of original stores that started business in the 1800s,” said Ms. Morrison. “Many of these stores were not doing well at the time, and you have someone that comes along and offers you rent for more than you were making as a net profit at the end of the year. … Why not sit back and take the rent and still own the building?”

And so stuffy old Greenwich Avenue, unable to outbid global luxury conglomerates but content to at least profit from them, allowed itself to be nipped and tucked into an over-gentrified retail “trout pout,” remade in the image of that highly specific class of international super-consumers that hops from London to New York to St. Barth’s to East Hampton to Greenwich and back again, expecting the same gold-plated Main Street in each place. It’s a more diverse, international crowd than you’d think, according to nearly everyone interviewed for this article; a group united only by sizable (if shrinking) bank accounts and their desire to live where rich people in America have always lived, on prime waterfront real estate a quick train ride away from our greatest city; and to do the things that rich Americans had always done, like golf and sailing and tennis, only with better handbags. They came to bathe in the WASP-y glow of the Greenwich brand—a brand so aspirational and compelling that Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors and Coach and Lacoste and all those retailers that could afford to eventually followed.

Several people suggested that for the new denizens of the avenue, profitability was never the point. “Even if they’re losing money or breaking even in a store on Greenwich Avenue, they still want to be there for marketing, for recognition,” said Mr. Ritman, the broker.

In other words, perhaps Greenwich has become a town of retail “presences,” not businesses, a movie-set monument to consumerism rather than a real consumer economy. “You go anywhere in the world now and mention Greenwich, people are familiar with it,” said Mr. Torelli, the broker.

“It’s become an international, sophisticated community,” said Charles Mallory, one of the developers of the yet unnamed new boutique hotel that will house Danny Meyer’s restaurant. The 85-room property, planned for late 2009 or early 2010, will have a “South Beach, Venice Beach, Soho, New York kind of feel,” he said, and will target weekday business travelers with affordable $150 to $200 rates.

And perhaps the new residents of Greenwich were complicit in entreating friends like Danny Meyer and Tory Burch to venture north, closer to their spacious backyards and low Connecticut stone walls. “Many people … had commented to us, it would be great if we had a Blue Smoke up here,” said David Swinghamer, president of the Growth Business Division at Mr. Meyer’s restaurant group.

And if hedge funds go the way of investment banks, what will become of this rarefied “micro-economy,” as Mr. Swinghamer called it? Certainly the European tourists won’t be picking up the slack, as they are on Bleecker Street. (Who in Greenwich is buying the $798 “Bleecker Street Limited Edition” red patent leather tote bags in Coach’s windows right now?)

“Everyone is numb, concerned, worried,” admitted Mr. Mallory, a Greenwich resident for 18 years. “But most people realize these things do ultimately turn around.”

“We think Fairfield County [where Greenwich is located] and Westchester are the kind of blue chip suburbs that will outlast a lot of things,” said Mr. Swinghamer. 

No one believes that more than Mr. Betteridge, who has weathered many a financial crisis in these parts and many a revitalization of Greenwich Avenue. Before the hedge funds, there were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and before that, Rockefellers, he said. The wealth stays the same (or increases, or decreases, but stays greater than that of almost any other town in America). But what if the wealthy of Greenwich shed their showy luxuries—in order to hang on to the house—and the marquee New York stores remain empty?  “Will I dance on their graves?” said Mr. Betteridge. “A jig.”

mbryan@observer.com

Greenwich Lean Time