Jul 11 / News
What’s Next for Montgomery Village?
Jun 1 / News
Under new ownership, the Santa Rosa shopping center has done extensive infrastructure work over the past year to lure in new shops.
As general manager of Montgomery Village, Brittany Mundarain has fielded many complaints and suggestions about Santa Rosa’s 71-year-old shopping center since a metro Boston real estate firm took it over last year.
WS Development, which operates more than 100 properties across the country, bought the 20-acre site that has about 60 shops in June 2021 from David and Melissa Codding. The family had owned it since its inception, transforming it into a powerhouse retail center that was front and center into the shopping habits and vibrant memories of generations of local consumers.
In the aftermath of the sale, many fans of the historic retail destination on the city’s east side have asked, “What’s next for Montgomery Village?”
That comes as another longtime tenant, Cattlemens Steakhouse, announced in early October it is leaving at year’s end after 50 years for a new spot in Rohnert Park. It was the latest closing of another beloved local store.
Shoppers have worried about the future of Montgomery Village.
“We do miss certain things,” said Donna Perlman, a former Oakmont resident who now lives in Oregon.
At the top of her list was a stationery shop because “there is still old-fashioned people like myself who do cards.”
She made a pitch for an upscale clothing store for women that hasn’t been there since Danny & Co. closed years ago, as well as a clothing alterations shop.
“If you wanted something unique for a gift, this was the place,” Perlman said.
Mundarain shared the message with Perlman she is repeating to other shoppers: Get ready to see new stores.
In the past year, the focus has been on infrastructure as WS Development embarked on 50 capital projects at the center — from new roofs, paint jobs, drought-resistant and native landscaping, and parking resurfacing to security patrols. The work will create new “outdoor living rooms” with free Wi-Fi, new furniture and ambient music so shoppers can linger more, she said.
With all the maintenance work coming into place, the shopping center expects to announce 10 to 15 new tenants next year that include both upscale national stores and unique local retailers, Mundarain said.
The first one will be Warby Parker, the popular online retailer of prescription glasses that is building up its brick-and-mortar presence across the country. It is to open by the end of March.
“Montgomery Village is beloved and the community is rightfully protective of this very special place. We hope in time we can earn the community’s trust and continue to enhance this special place they love,” Mundarain said.
“We understand this will take time.”
The forthcoming tenants come as many local residents have wondered about the center’s future with such closings as Village Art Supply (owners retired) and Village Bakery (new location) since the change of ownership.
Those closures were followed by Cattlemens, which left its long-term lease after it expired to resettle at a Rohnert Park property it had already bought. Mundarain said she wished Cattlemens “the best in this new opportunity for a free-standing building.”
Montgomery Village has paneling covering empty storefronts, which can give off a perception to customers of a major exodus. Virginia Nugent, of Santa Rosa, said “there are so many empty places” as she walked Tuesday near the Kaleidoscope Toys store .
She has visited the center for 45 years and has especially missed a local upscale women’s clothing store. She now goes to Healdsburg to find such items.
“National brands don’t cut it for me,” Nugent said.
To be sure, all shopping centers have a constant churn of store closings and openings. Additionally, the pandemic made retailing much harder, particularly for restaurants.
According to data from real estate firm Keegan & Coppin Co. Inc., Montgomery Village had a vacancy rate of 3.8% for the second quarter in 2022 over its approximately 280,000-square-foot footprint. That level was higher than the Walmart Plaza in Rohnert Park at a 1.8% rate, but much lower than the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall at an 18.3% level.
One reason for the slower pace of new store openings is that WS Development is typically more selective than other commercial landlords because it wants “best in class” brands that can appeal across generations.
“As a balance of art and science, we don’t want to simply fill space,” Mundarain said.
Local retailers I interviewed last week said they welcomed the changes and the promise of new stores to increase foot traffic at the center, which is bifurcated between its south side and north side by Sonoma Avenue.
Ken Gray, owner of Design Jewelers, said he has been pleased with the revamping. Gray creates a boutique experience for his customers with his custom-designed jewelry.
“The shopping center needed updating. It has been the same for ages,” said Gray, who has had his shop there for 25 years. “It’s brought a fresh look to the place, which it needed.”
WS Development should bring in higher-end national brands, Gray added, with his hope that it will land an Apple or a Nike store. Montgomery Village does have a target list for new stores, Mundarain said, with a mix of national brands and local retailers.
It includes more stores from the fitness, beauty and apparel industries, as well as a stationery shop, an ice cream vendor, a local bakery and fast-casual restaurants with healthy menus. Other possibilities include a pizza place, a family-friendly brewpub and a wine bar to help attract out-of-town visitors.
“Our space here is at a premium, so we want to be very thoughtful and artful with new additions,” she said.
Debra Knick, who owns Sonoma Outfitters with her son Greg Peterson, said she hopes the new stores come quickly as her locally owned shop has vacancies on both sides because Kaleidoscope Toys moved and Village Bakery closed.
Her customers also have mentioned the vacancies. “There is no foot traffic,” Knick said. “We are a destination store.”
Her store was involved in a minor spat this summer with WS Development over the placement of a statue of Rasta Charlie, a Rastafarian version of Charlie Brown inspired by Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz’s original.
It had been outside the store for years, but the company asked that it be removed over concerns of “misappropriation of race and religion.” Knick noted the statue was beloved by local customers and Rasta Charlie was ultimately moved inside the store.
Sonoma Outfitters still has 18 months remaining on its lease, and its rent has been raised once since the change in ownership. However, Knick said her immediate focus is on the upcoming holiday sales season and to get more shoppers inside her shop.
“The reason we moved 8½ years ago was to get more traffic from Railroad Square,” she said of the store’s previous location.
Paul Jaffe, co-owner of Copperfield’s Books, with nine North Bay locations, said its Montgomery Village store had a bigger drop in customers during the height of the pandemic compared to other locations.
Its clientele at the location skews more elderly, who as an overall category were more cautious venturing inside stores. But the business has rebounded.
“We are pleased with the business we are doing there,” Jaffe said of Montgomery Village.
Like other small retailers, Copperfield’s is cognizant of rising costs, especially as it operates on closer profit margins compared to other industries, Jaffe said. Rob Daly, owner of Avid Coffee, also spoke of concern over inflation, largely within his supply chain.
He has three stores in Sonoma County that include one in Montgomery Village.
“We work to maintain prices that are stable,” Daly said of the recent economic challenges.
Mundarain said WS Development takes a long-term view with its business and believes a “combination of local and national is essential to fostering the community” and wants to be a partner for local businesses to succeed.
Daly said he has appreciated the revamped parking spaces and an expansion for more outdoor seating for his coffee store even though his shop will face a soon-to-be closed Cattlemens across the parking lot.
“We all have to continue to adapt,” he said.