Girard In Jeopardy? Nine vacancies on three blocks of Village street in La Jolla

No matter which way you turn onto Girard Avenue from Torrey Pines Road — considered “ground zero” for visitors and residents of La Jolla — people coming into The Village see empty commercial space.

On the 7300 to 7600 blocks of Girard Avenue alone, there are nine vacant storefronts, ranging from the two large car showrooms opposite one another at Pearl Street, to the smaller brick-and-mortars up and down the road.

The reasons these businesses closed or moved away are as varied as the businesses themselves. Nevertheless, the emptied storefronts don’t project a vitality vibe for The Village.

When former La Jolla Village Merchants Association president James Niebling announced his firm, Esteban Interiors, would be relocating within San Diego once its lease at 7605 Girard Ave. was up this summer, he wrote to the board: “We are excited about the opportunity to become an even more dynamic brand in the San Diego area. This was a very difficult decision to come by as I have nothing but great passion and respect for the La Jolla community.”

The Subway sandwich franchise at 7514 Girard Ave. closed as part of a national effort to reduce the number of its storefronts.

Waters Fine Foods & Catering closed at 7441 Girard Ave. when its one-year lease expired. “It was a really difficult location,” owner Mary Kay Waters told the Light. “We didn’t get the support we were looking for and the rent was more expensive than we were expecting, plus, our sales were low compared to our other locations.”

Waters said she only signed a one-year lease to “test” the La Jolla market. “We had some nerves about having a location in La Jolla,” she added. “My sister-in-law had a shoe shop in La Jolla for a few years. She told me people would come and ‘visit’ the shoes, but they would not buy them. I heard mixed things about operating in La Jolla, especially on that end of Girard, but I was excited about the location because I love the feel of it up there. I liked the space, so I took the leap, but only for a year.”

This practice, says Cushman and Wakefield realtor Mike Slattery, is reflective of changes in the retail market nationwide.

Slattery, who has been brokering deals in La Jolla for almost 40 years, noted there are varied reasons why a retail business may succeed or fail, and he pointed out that overall, the retail landscape has changed because of e-commerce and social media, and fewer tenants are expanding the way they use to.

“(The closures) are not a function of La Jolla, it’s always been a desirable location,” Slattery said. “But the type of retailers that are looking for locations here are changing. E-commerce has altered the way people now shop. When people go to a large store, they have their smartphone as they walk through and they can do comparative shopping online ... and then you have landlords and potential tenants who are not realistic or flexible in their expectations.”

Case in point, he said, are tenants wanting shorter leases in case business does not pick up, and landlords wanting longer leases for financial security.

“A lot of these buildings in La Jolla are owned by private families from out of the area … so it’s not always easy for them to accept short-term leases because it disrupts their revenue stream,” Slattery said. “The biggest challenge is finding the right tenant for the right property.”

As a compromise, some tenants will sign a lease with an early termination clause and leave if the need arises.

“The other issue of vacancy is functionality,” Slattery explained. “Stores are getting smaller and the stores on Girard were built out in the 1970s for a different generation. Most of these buildings are considered functionally obsolete.” The larger spaces carry a larger rent bill. While the figure changes from building to building, Slattery said Village rents vary from $2.45 to up to $4 a square foot per month. (1,500 to 2,000 square-foot spaces are common.)

“Building functionality and pricing needs to be part of the equation,” he continued. “Many (building) owners are absentee or inherited the spaces, and they’re not realistic or are accustomed to a certain amount of rent coming in every month. This puts more pressure on tenants to make precise decisions; they can’t afford to have a location at UTC and La Jolla, so as their leases expire, they close one.”

Not all doom and gloom

Slattery said with the coming of the The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center next year on Fay Avenue, and the existence of The Lot movie theater in The Village, there will be increases in traffic that could fuel more business.

Further, new Merchants Association president Alisha Hawrylyszyn Frank said there is a “big picture” to consider.

“With change comes growing pains,” she said, “but I’m very positive about the transition The Village is going through. People’s needs and wants are shifting; where people want to spend their money is different than a few years ago. We’re tapping into what that is and we’re going to be creating a community where merchants can thrive.”

She added that with several Merchants Association board seats up for grabs in October — including a new executive director — there is going to be a major transition. “Positive things are in the works that will take a little bit of time and lot of energy. But we’re not trying to rush anything, we want to take the time necessary so everyone is in agreement. There is a bigger picture here,” Hawrylyszyn Frank said. “The more people are passionate about the picture, the better off everyone is.”

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