Are high rents killing Bristol’s downtown?

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 2/27/20

Two weeks ago, Yadira Alexander, owner of Spa Yadira on High Street, received a certified letter from her landlord, a Massachusetts resident. The letter said she had 39 days to accept an $800 monthly …

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Are high rents killing Bristol’s downtown?


Two weeks ago, Yadira Alexander, owner of Spa Yadira on High Street, received a certified letter from her landlord, a Massachusetts resident. The letter said she had 39 days to accept an $800 monthly rent increase (a 60 percent increase), or vacate her space.

Despite being contractually obligated to give (and receive) 45 days notice, Ms. Alexander nonetheless recognized that this month or the next, her work home was about to become unaffordable. Her stress was exacerbated by the fact that the letter arrived on a Thursday, giving her only one business day before the weekend to begin her search for a new space, and that, when questioned about the short notice, her landlord allegedly said she had written the letter in December but failed to mail it.

“I could have had three months to make this move,” Ms. Alexander said. “Instead I have five weeks.” Immediately after receiving the letter, Ms. Alexander reached out to her network and was able to find a new space on Waseca Avenue in Barrington, but it has been, and continues to be, a grueling exercise in running — and moving — a small business in record time. “It’s unfortunate,” she said. “It’s not good for the town, if people can’t afford to do business here.”

When the esthetician launched her skin care business nearly 20 years ago, she was situated in a Barrington salon. She came to Bristol about 15 years ago, and rented space in other salons for several years before opening Spa Yadira on High Street.

In turn, she has rented space to Gina Aguiar and her popular pedicure business, Sole Sanctuary. Ms. Aguiar has been able to find a new home at New Leaf on State Street. Ms. Alexander regrets that they could not stay together, but her new space, at about 750 square feet, is significantly smaller than her High Street space.

“If I had the time, I might have been able to find a space large enough to accommodate us both,” she said.

Are rents too high?

Social media chatter, and a letter from Bristol residents, cite high rents as the cause for so many empty storefronts in downtown Bristol.

Is that really the issue? A quick look at rates of on-the-market properties reveals prices in Warren, most often cited as Bristol’s biggest “competition” in the business of attracting and retaining retail business, are dramatically better than those is Bristol. A list of comps sourced from CoStar shows that some downtown Bristol properties are asking double and even triple equally well-situated properties along Warren’s Main and Water Streets.

For example, 160 Water St., Warren recently leased for $14.67 (per square foot, annually) and 478-488 Main St., Warren, recently leased for $12. Compare to 17-19 State St., Bristol, which recently signed for $30, and 39 State St., Bristol, recently leased at $42.67. Based on those numbers, it’s pretty clear which town would be more attractive to small retail businesses.

Can town do anything?

But is it the town’s job — or even the town’s right — to enforce lower rates? Many people, including the town administrator, consider that to be an unfair intrusion of an individual’s property rights. It’s the market that can (and will) adjust accordingly. What town government can do, is make a town as business-friendly as possible.

“Our commercial tax rate is tied to the residential rate,” said Town Administrator Steven Contente. “It’s one of the lowest in the state. We’ve introduced an ordinance for a tangible tax exemption, we are picking up trash, and we’ve purchased a parking lot downtown.

“I don’t know what else we can do as a town,” Mr. Contente said. “I don’t think we want to get into private property rights; the market will correct that. I think we have some very good days ahead.”

Town is undercutting market

Others, including a local businessman who asked not to be named, cited several town policies that he sees as working against competitive private enterprise in Bristol, notably the Historic District Commission and the formula business ordinance, as well as direct competition from the town itself.

“You’ve got the rentals at the Byfield School building undercutting rentals downtown, and a formula business ordinance that is unevenly applied,” he said. “A sign has to go through HDC, then Zoning. There are so many layers and hoops to jump through.”

Another source of concern for some gym and yoga studio owners is competition from the town’s own Recreation Department’s fitness programming.

It’s an ongoing multi-faceted problem that will require a concerted effort to address. According to Marianne Bergenholtz of Friends of Historic Bristol, a local nonprofit dedicated to, among other things, smart growth and economic vitality, the group is doing a comprehensive, in-depth study of this issue right now.

“It’s part of our continuing effort working toward a Main Street America program for the Town,” said Ms. Bergenholtz in an email.

Main Street America is a 43-year-old institute which helps municipalities revitalize their downtowns and commercial districts through preservation-based economic development and community revitalization.

“The Main Street program utilizes a proven four-point approach to combat these issues,” Ms. Bergenholtz wrote. “It has been successful in hundreds of communities throughout the United States.”

As for Yadira Alexander, she looks forward to opening in her new location March 24. “I don’t want to seem like I am having a pity party,” she said.

“This will be a blessing in disguise,” she said of her new location along heavily-trafficked Waseca Avenue. “My new landlord has been wonderful, and it will all work out. I’m open to good things coming my way, and they will.”

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