The closing of Peet’s in March was a bitter last cup of coffee for regulars of the Wellesley Square shop to swallow. The replacement of it with a Chase Bank branch, scheduled to open this summer, has left an even more bitter taste in the mouths of those already upset with the prevalence of banks among the town’s most prominent storefronts.
But what could have been might really have had Peet’s patrons spitting out their drinks: Ice cream shop Truly’s had a real interest in the 2,000 sq. ft. Peet’s space, but unfortunately the property manager was already focused on getting the Chase deal done.
Truly’s owner Steve Marcus, who acquired the community-oriented business in 2019, has been looking for a way to expand the shop’s space, all 750 sq. feet of it. With socially distanced lines down the street to the corner at times, and patrons consuming their ice cream and frozen yogurt from whatever perch they can snag, it’s obvious why Marcus wants to stretch out.
While some have specific environmental-related issues with Chase itself, the angst in the community over this bank branch’s pending arrival has more to do with the overall struggle of Wellesley’s retail districts to fill empty storefronts with a wider variety of businesses, with a special mix that will satisfy locals and attract those from out of town to visit. Residents commiserate over more-of-the-same coming to town, while the idea of a candy store or bike shop or you-name-it filling an empty storefront can seem far-fetched (though we have heard inklings that a bike shop might in fact be on the way).
Marcus describes the main stretch through town becoming a “financial corridor” filled with companies that have a lot of money trying to reach people who have a lot of money. He took an informal inventory of Wellesley Square when traveling through recently and figured less than half of the street-level store fronts were home to retailers where you can walk out with a bag or product. Businesses providing services that used to be found on the second or third floors are now at street level, he says.
Asked about whether the town might or could consider any sort of restrictions on more bank branches opening in prime real estate, I was told by town officials “not likely.” Newton economic development officials explored this almost a decade ago (Newton Centre at the time had 14 bank locations),but the City Council didn’t bite.
Merchants from Wellesley Square and Linden Square have banded together throughout the pandemic to support each other and drum up ideas to serve customers, and the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber has embraced Wellesley businesses as the Wellesley Chamber phased out.
The town is angling to attract more small restaurants by making them eligible for alcohol licenses, and even partnered with grad students at Babson College to assess the business scene and deliver recommendations to liven it up. Wellesley is also thinking beyond just storefronts, opening up to other attractions, such as a new concert series featuring local performers.
But challenges are many and obvious. Rents approach those of Boston and Brookline. The move to online shopping has only picked up during the pandemic. And leadership or community engagement from most property managers and landlords has been lackluster, though partnering with the town on art in storefronts and an agreement to get Wellesley Free Library into 50 Central St. while renovations are made to the main building signal a positive change.
Wellesley Assistant Executive Director Amy Frigulietti says town officials can try to influence property managers and landlords to take a more community-oriented approach, but can only do so much. She’s hopeful that findings from the work with Babson might shed light on opportunities that will appeal to those who own and manage Wellesley’s commercial properties. “We’d like to get more of a dialogue going with them,” she says. Select Board member Beth Sullivan Woods adds that she’s optimistic about Wellesley Square’s future based on recent discussions with property managers and owners, who she says are working to get the right retailers in their spaces. “It’s a long process,” she says.
Meanwhile, Truly’s Marcus says of the town, residents and merchants: “They all need to be making more noise about this.”
Truly’s, which serves 700-1,000 customers a day when cranking on nice days and does a brisk business even in more dismal weather months like March, has been scouting for a different and bigger space within Wellesley Square for 6 months. Truly’s could sell two or three times the number of ice cream cakes it currently sells, but doesn’t even market the product because it lacks production capacity. Marcus’s son Jeffrey, who manages Truly’s, has designs on expanding the product line to include more in the way of sugarless and vegan offerings, but needs more space to go all in on that.
It’s been a considerable research project trying to figure out who owns what in town, and once Marcus does find such information, getting callbacks has been difficult. It’s his impression that there aren’t many true locals who own these properties.
Boston-based commercial real estate management firm Bullfinch handled the Peet’s location at 9 Central St. (Bullfinch, which we’ve been unable to reach, also is marketing the former Upper Crust and Bruegger’s Bagels sites on Central Street.)
Finding the right spot’s not easy, especially for a restaurant. If a space isn’t already built out for a food establishment, that means infrastructure investments in the six figures for plumbing, heating/cooling, and more.
Which is why the Peet’s space would have fit Truly’s profile.
While the 10-year Chase lease was already in the works before Truly’s knew the Peet’s property was available, Marcus got a second chance when Bullfinch revealed it was going to flip the property for an initial asking price of $2.6M. Bidders lined up, and Marcus claims his bid would have prevailed. However, the only reason he wanted the property is if Chase would agree to move out, perhaps to the Cambridge Bank (former Wellesley Bank) space at 40 Central St., sort of across the street in Wellesley Square that will be vacated come July. Not that that space would necessarily be available to Chase.
Marcus says he got an audience with Chase, and approached them “with perhaps the adolescent idea” that he could convince them to take a different space, which he said would be a huge PR win for them. Residents and merchants might be more likely to throw business in the credit card powerhouse’s direction, he says. In the end, Marcus says Chase appreciated his brazen pitch, but said it coveted the former Peet’s spot, both for its 5 parking spaces and location as a gateway to Wellesley Square, and wasn’t going anywhere.
So that was that.
Marcus says he’s been tapped on the shoulder from property owners in other parts of town, and in neighboring communities like Needham. He has great respect for what Linden Square is doing in terms of trying to make its space more engaging via art, planned parklets, and such, and thinks that shopping area is on the rise as a destination. Having a single property manager in Federal Realty naturally allows for a more coordinated approach and more balanced tenant mix, he says.
Truly’s spent considerable time exploring a possible move to Church Square in which it would have taken a couple of spaces facing Wellesley Square and made use of part of the parking lot to host picnic tables. Truly’s even had talks with Peet’s corporate about selling its products there. Something could still happen on this front, and Marcus still has other possibilities in the works and is open to new ideas. Some other Wellesley Square spots were rejected due to lack of easy parking.
In the end, Marcus vows that he’d prefers to be in Wellesley Square, and ideally, would move more centrally into the district from Truly’s current spot on the fringe. He wants to make a decision within the next 60 days so that the business is ready to go in a new space next spring and summer, as he needs to account for what have become very slow supply lines during the pandemic. The big question remaining is: Who’s going to bite?
(Disclaimer: Truly’s supported our site last summer by donating a portion of sales of its Swellesley Swirl soft-serve ice cream.)
Correction: We updated this post on 5/13/21 to clarify the nature of Truly’s efforts to explore the former Peet’s space.