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Fenway, Roxbury projects signaling retail resurgence

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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High-profile merchant Target Corp. and natural-foods grocer Whole Foods Market Inc. are eyeing major expansions in the Fenway, while Kohl’s Corp. is considering a smaller version of its discount department store in Roxbury — all signs of a renewed optimism in the Hub retail market.

The plans were described yesterday by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and other city officials familiar with the development plans. Menino, who this week is drumming up business for the city at a retail convention in Las Vegas, also reported that Panera Bread Co. is planning to open a restaurant in part of the shuttered Circuit City at South Bay Center in Dorchester.

And CB2, a home furnishings chain by Crate & Barrel aimed at young adults, is vying to locate in Fenway, at one of the new projects on Boylston Street by Boston developer Steve Samuels, the mayor said.

“We see the economy is getting a little better this year and people are thinking about expansions, new locations, and new concepts,’’ Menino said. “Whole Foods, Target, and CB2 — they’re really excited about the Fenway area. They see the demographic and the great potential with the medical centers and college students.’’

It’s a striking difference in tone from last year, when Menino, for the first time in 16 years, didn’t even attend the annual Global Retail Real Estate Convention because of the tough economic climate.

The recession has hit the Boston retail market particularly hard, with vacancies soaring to 11.6 percent in 2009, compared with 9.7 percent for Eastern Massachusetts, according to KeyPoint Partners LLC, a market research firm.

But there is cautious optimism as consumers slowly resume their shopping habits. Nearly 70 percent of US retailers believe that the overall economy is improving, and 92 percent are planning to increase store openings, according to a survey released last week by CB Richard Ellis Group Inc. Newbury Street has already started to see the uptick: More than a dozen new shops opened in recent months, and another 14 businesses are set to debut in the coming months.

Although no deals have been finalized, Target, Whole Foods, and CB2 have been in serious negotiations for months to move into a planned complex at the Goodyear site located at 1345 Boylston St. and an adjacent property at 1325 Boylston St., according to city officials, including Susan Elsbree, a spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Target is considering a three-story urban format with upwards of 130,000 square feet, which would make the store one of just about 40 Target shops nationwide that are spread over multiple floors or have a unique floor plan, the officials said. The project will soon start the permitting process, and developers are hoping to complete the site over the next three years.

Target, which has about 31 stores in Massachusetts, declined to confirm plans for Fenway, but Sarah Bakken, company spokeswoman, said, “Boston is a market that Target continues to be interested in for future expansion.’’

Robin Rehfield, a Whole Foods spokeswoman, also declined to confirm plans to move to the Fenway, but said, “We’re always exploring new sites in and around Boston, but we don’t comment on speculation surrounding specific store sites.’’

Samuels, who developed Trilogy and 1330 Boylston Street in Fenway, said: “We’re working with a big discount store, a grocery store, some other furniture stores, and other national retailers who are showing significant renewed interest in the Fenway.’’

“People are finally starting to realize there’s great transportation and demographics. It’s been overlooked for many, many years as the domain of the ballpark and medical centers,’’ said Samuels.

Madison Riley, a retail analyst with Kurt Salmon Associates in Boston, said Fenway is an appealing market for many retailers because there is a good neighborhood in addition to all the foot traffic that comes with the Red Sox games. Upgrades to Fenway Park that include more seats and expanded food options, along with new retail and residential projects in the neighborhood, “give a lot of people confidence that this is a good place to invest,’’ Riley said.

Tasty Burger and Citizen, a gastropub launched by the owners of Franklin Cafe in the South End, are two of the latest restaurants expected to open in the Fenway later this summer.

Retailers are also pursuing other sites across the city. In addition to the South Bay location, Panera has plans to open restaurants on Boylston Street in the Back Bay and Huntington Avenue near Northeastern University. Panera declined to confirm these locations, but John Maguire, the company’s co-chief operating officer, said in a statement, “We view Boston as one of Panera’s strongest development opportunities in the country and hope to open three more locations this year.’’

Smith & Wollensky steakhouse is also eyeing the Atlantic Wharf on the waterfront to test its new, lower-priced concept, Wollensky’s Grill, according to Menino. A Smith & Wollensky spokeswoman declined to comment.

In past years, Downtown Crossing has been a focal point of Menino’s pitch to retailers. But plans for a neighborhood revival spearheaded by the redevelopment of the Filene’s block at One Franklin Street are coming up short since the project lost financing.

In the meantime, city officials are aggressively marketing the former Tello’s site on Washington Street and hope momentum in other parts of Downtown Crossing will eventually breathe life into the Filene’s redevelopment.

“It’s frustrating. No questions about it,’’ Menino said. “They can’t just sit idly by.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.