CHELSEA — Walk along the Ladies' Mile and you'll see some of the country's biggest, most successful retailers — not to mention ornate Gilded Age buildings.
But the same strip of Sixth Avenue, south of West 23rd Street, that's home to a bustling Trader Joe's, a Staples, and Bed Bath and Beyond can't seem to find enough stores to fill a swath of empty storefronts still sitting empty after years of vacancy.
The northern half of the Mattel Building's ground floor at 675 Sixth Avenue has been unoccupied for more than a year. Formerly a Barnes and Noble that closed in 2008, the 42,000-square-foot space can't seem to get the kind of big-name retail tenants that can afford the area's steep rents.
In April, a Bally Total Fitness gym, Papyrus and RadioShack fled a space at at 641 Sixth Avenue, where the landlord was asking $200 a square foot.
Across the street, a FedEx Office store closed shop at the end of June. A smaller storefront at the Hugh O'Neil Building at 655 Sixth Ave., formerly an eyeglasses shop, is also empty.
"I know they have been [empty] for so long, but I don't know why people aren't chomping at the bit to get them," said Patrick Allen, 34, who was shopping at the nearby Trader Joe's. "There's a lot of people here all the time. It's perfect for a store or something. Maybe Walmart."
Critics blame a combination of exorbitant rents only accessible to major retail chains, and a reluctance of retailers to take on a site inside a landmarked building.
Once home to famous department stores, the Ladies' Mile Historical District was formed in 1989 to protect the exteriors of buildings from about West 18th to West 24th streets, and from Sixth to Park avenues.
Those protections could make it difficult for any landlord to make modifications to the buildings without going through a long approval process with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, critics said.
But Gary Alterman, a vice president with retail broker RKF, said there is a bright side to having empty spaces in old buildings: With tenants gone, landlords can upgrade their interior space.
He pointed to the former Bally gym space at the corner of West 21nd Street and Sixth Avenue — a property where his company recently closed a deal to get Staples to move into approximately half the space, after leaving their storefront a block away.
"The space was tired and old. It needed to be worked on," he said.
Alterman said the strip is more conducive to stores than to gyms, because "certain places like gyms don't pay big rent, so landlords are looking for bigger tenants."
"Pretty much anyone who's looking at the neighborhood is from a national chain," he added.
Both Ripco Real Estate, which represents 675 Sixth Ave, and United America Land, which owns the space at 655 Sixth Avenue, did not respond to requests for comment.