More Retail Death on 100 Block—Lululemon Leaving for Bearden

We guess the yummy mummies of Knoxville just can’t handle downtown—Lululemon Athletica, the fat-shaming purveyor of very expensive yoga pants, is leaving its storefront on the 100 Block of Gay Street for West Knoxville and a parking lot. Here’s what the shop just posted on Facebook:

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One commenter sarcastically posted below the news, “Thank goodness! I’m okay with paying 80 bucks for a tank top in which to exercise but to have to WALK a long way from my parking spot is as unacceptable as removing the Romney sticker from my Range Rover.” This seems about right (except, perhaps for the Romney reference—many liberal people we know are fond of the apparel, too). Somehow, despite there being TONS of free parking on West Jackson Ave. on nights and weekends and very cheap (and usually available) metered metered parking on the Gay St. viaduct during the day, retail on the 100 Block keeps dying.

You might think the move to Bearden might be about increasing Lululemon’s visibility to traffic, in addition to having a parking lot, but you’d be wrong. Here’s the location they’re going into:

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From a business perspective, that location seems like the kiss of death for a high-end chain retail shop. There’s no foot traffic, no visibility from a major thoroughfare, and very little proximity to other similar types of retail. But clearly the store wouldn’t be moving there if their customers hadn’t complained enough about having to drive all the way downtown and then not be able to find a place to park. Indeed, most of the comments on the announcement are along the lines of “Yay!!!!” or “YAYYYY!!!!” or “Yayyyy! Cannot. Wait.”

This is the problem with downtown, right now. There is not a parking problem, as we’ve written about before, there’s just the perception of one. Seriously, look how much parking we have:

That image is from a great new Tumbr called Lost Knox, run by Whitney Manahan (who, coincidentally, works for David Dewhirst, who owns the space Lululemon is leaving). But even more stunning than the parking overlay is this image:

In 1935, there wasn’t a whole lot of parking downtown. There was, however, a whole lot of retail. Ok, so everyone didn’t have a car in 1935. But even 20 years later, in 1955, there was enough retail culture for Rich’s to open this grand department store on Henley St.

Wish the UT Conference Center still lit up like that …

Now, despite the grand revitalization of downtown, a store that’s only open for three days a week can’t deal with customer complaints enough to justify not having a parking lot. If you wonder why almost every new business announced for new ground-floor development downtown is a restaurant or bar, this is why.

People in Knoxville don’t mind navigating downtown parking for entertainment, when they’re going to be somewhere for a few hours eating or drinking or watching a movie, but they do mind it when they just want to go to one store and buy one or two things. We aren’t sure what it’s going to take for retail to thrive downtown outside of Market Square and the blocks immediately next to it, but if a high-end chain can’t hack it, we might be doomed. Or just stuck with dozens and dozens of restaurants—which might as well be the same thing.

UPDATE: Dewhirst Properties employee Mary Beth Tugwell says all is not as grim as it seems:

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Let’s hope whatever’s coming in has more luck than past businesses have.

Correction: Dewhirst used to own the 100 Block building that currently houses Lululemon but has not done so for years.