UPPER EAST SIDE — Madison Avenue has always been a place where luxury brands have flocked. The second half of 2011 was no different.
Even though the recession hit the famed retail strip hard and created a wave of empty storefronts, Madison Avenue has seen a flurry of new businesses move in and old ones renovate or expand.
And the famed street never stopped attracting big names.
The 14 new stores that opened on the stretch between East 60th and 86th streets in the last six months included such high-end brands as Bottega Veneta (849 Madison Ave.), Escada (747 Madison Ave.) and Tory Burch (797 Madison Ave.), according to a list released Thursday by the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District.
Maison Laduree (the Parisian macaron shop at 864 Madison Ave.), Vacheron Constantin (selling fine Swiss timepieces at 729 Madison Ave.) and Il Gufo (an Italian children's fashion shop at 962 Madison Ave.) all made the avenue their first US home, noted BID president Matthew Bauer.
"It's a great list and it's an interesting list because of all the different types of businesses," said Bauer, who has been awed, for instance by the "huge, huge lines" that Laduree has been attracting.
Bauer estimated that 5 percent of the storefronts were empty along famed retail strip and the side streets off of Madison Avenue. Even at the low point for the strip in 2009, Bauer estimated that roughly 8 percent of the storefronts were vacant and said that things were "getting better steadily since."
Rents on Madison Avenue dipped dramatically after the recession, although they are starting to creep up again.
In the fourth quarter of 2007, the average ground floor retail rent was $1,091 per square foot, according to Cushman & Wakefield real estate services firm. The fourth quarter average prices dipped slightly in 2008 to $1,057 per square foot and then dropped to $834 per square foot in 2008, before rising slightly to $847 per square foot in 2010.
In the third quarter of 2011, the average rent was $863 per square foot.
The major dip and sluggish increase in rents prompted Crain's New York Business to say that Madison Avenue was "losing its luster" compared to SoHo and the Meatpacking District, which have now become magnets for high fashion stores.
But some spaces are asking much more than the Cushman figures. The Helmsley Carlton House, getting a major overhaul across from Barneys, will be asking $1,500 a square foot for ground floor retail, according to the New York Post.
"This has been a period of tremendous investment and re-investment on Madison Avenue," Bauer said.
Other new shops on Madison Avenue's prime retail stretch include Pretty Ballerinas, which opened two weeks ago to sell their popular flats (27 East 67 St. at Madison Avenue). Joe Fresh is now selling clothes at a temporary Ralph Lauren shop (1055 Madison Ave.) and Lululemon Athletica took over a Banana Republic (1146 Madison Ave.).
Chef John DeLucie, who was the executive chef at Graydon Carter's Waverly Inn, struck out on his own at the tony Crown in the former Bruno Jamais Restaurant Club (24 East 81 St. at Madison Avenue), where he is, for instance, serving a $125 dry cote de boeuf for two.
Several stores renovated their existing spaces or opened new locations in the district in a process Bauer called "haute construction," including Barneys, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli and the ritzy tights store, Fogal.
Many stores have been playing musical chairs. The mod designer Lisa Perry is moving from her three-year-old boutique in the middle of the block to the corner of 77th Street at 988 Madison Ave., where it will re-open in March, her website said.
"These are people who know what business is like here and they said we're going to re-up the ante and reinvest in spectacular stores. That is as gratifying to me as the new stores," Bauer said. "It's a way of showing that the luxury marketplace is viewing Madison Avenue as the place to be."