In December of last year, Las Olas Companies, Barron Real Estate and Hudson Capital Group — the three major commercial property owners on Las Olas Boulevard — hired retail leasing guru Michael Comras to help them revitalize a four-block stretch of what is arguably downtown Fort Lauderdale’s most important strip: from Southeast Sixth Avenue to Southeast 10th Terrace.
Yet 10 months into the effort, Miami Beach-based Comras Company has only announced two new shops, highlighting the struggle to reshape Las Olas into a prime high street.
“Las Olas has always been this amazing street that makes you ask, ‘Why can’t it be merchandised into something that is contemporary for today?’” Comras, a New York-born commercial real estate broker and investor, asked. “When you compare it to retail streets like Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach or Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Las Olas has so much going for it, but the street still doesn’t have the proper balance between food and beverage and clothing and accessories.”
However, Comras is confident that he’s reached a turning point with the recent signing of Bluemercury to a long-term lease. In mid-June, the Washington, D.C.-based luxury cosmetics store opened its second South Florida location at 1010 Las Olas Boulevard.
Comras said Bluemercury is a nice complement to Alex and Ani, a high-end custom jewelry store that opened next door at 1012 Las Olas Boulevard in 2015. “Both appeal to a younger clientele,” he said. “And both show what a change in merchandising can do to improve Las Olas.”
In November, a Lilly Pulitzer pop-up store will open at 1007 Las Olas Boulevard. The Pennsylvania-based women’s resortwear retailer signed a short-term lease that runs through May 2018.
Comras claimed he didn’t need to offer Bluemercury and Lilly Pulitzer any special concessions or incentives to move in, insisting the retailers chose Las Olas Boulevard “for its prime location in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to miss the abundance of empty storefronts while strolling Las Olas. Restaurants that spent many years there, such as Mangos, Cafe de Paris, Johnny V’s and Fork & Balls, have shuttered in the last year. According to the Colliers International Q2 report, downtown Fort Lauderdale had a 3.3 percent retail vacancy rate.
“Right now, Las Olas is an unproven concept, so you will see vacancies,” said Robert Granda, Franklin Street’s South Florida retail director. “Nothing has been occurring on Las Olas for a very long time. It has been a stagnant market.”
Still, Comras insisted he is close to bringing in more national retail brands to fill those empty spaces.
He and Zach Winkler, a JLL senior vice president, both said that the large amount of vacancies on Las Olas will make it easier to rebrand the street with a retail mix that appeals to a more cosmopolitan demographic.
“The major property owners on Las Olas are purposely repositioning the four-block stretch,” said Winkler.
Granda said the real catalyst for a retail renaissance on Las Olas will be convincing retailers that the neighborhood will soon have a critical mass of people to draw into their stores. He noted that a key selling point is the influx of new residential developments like Icon Las Olas. The 45-story luxury apartment tower at 500 Las Olas Boulevard was scheduled to open in September, and half of the 272 units have been leased, according to a spokesperson for the Related Group.
This summer, Property Markets Group began demolishing the former Las Olas Riverfront site to make way for a massive mixed-used development with 1,200 apartments, 100,000 square feet of shared amenities and a waterfront public plaza lined with restaurants and entertainment.
“Las Olas is primed to be the next hot spot,” Granda said. “Once retailers understand what Las Olas could become, you will see a lot less changeover.”