Urban Outfitters plans store in Portland's Old Port

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PORTLAND — Urban Outfitters, the national retailer described as funky, hipster, kitschy and occasionally insensitive, is poised to move into the former Pavilion on Middle Street.

The company received unanimous approval from the Historic Preservation Board July 6 for proposed signs and ground-floor alterations at 188 Middle St., originally the Canal Bank building.

The company, whose trendy fashions and luxury furnishings cater to younger shoppers and those with disposable income, is leasing nearly 10,000 square feet of space in the building’s 14,000-square-foot ground level, according to city documents.

Historic Preservation Manager Deb Andrews said the company only needs sign and building permits from the city to begin renovations.

The company plans to install a new door and replace some of the windows to increase visibility into the store.

It’s unclear when the store will open. Neither the Philadelphia-based company nor the building owner could be reached for comment.

Portland Downtown District Executive Director Janis Beitzer said she is excited about Urban Outfitters coming to town.

“We’re obviously pleased that another store is coming to downtown and taking up a space that has long been vacant,” she said. The Pavilion nightclub closed in 2007.

A national clothing retailer coming to the Old Port seemed almost unthinkable as recently as five years ago, when a downtown property owner proposed putting in a Hooter’s restaurant on Congress Street.

That proposal touched off a year-long study and debate about limiting chain restaurants and retailers. In the end, however, no restrictions were instituted.

Several local store owners and managers expressed mixed reactions last week about the introduction of a chain clothing retailer in the Old Port.

Some said local stores could benefit form the additional foot traffic that might be generated by a well-known destination like Urban Outfitters.

Others, however, were concerned the store could lead to other chains, which could drive up rents and make it harder for independent businesses to hang on.

Johanna Cairns grew up in Portland and is working at Tavecchia, 52 Exchange St., for the summer. When she lived in New York City about three years ago, she said residents would often discuss how chain retailers changed the character of Greenwich Village.

Cairns said she is concerned that other chain stores would follow Urban Outfitters, causing Portland to look more like Freeport.

“I hope that doesn’t happen here,” she said. “That would be awful.”

But Tavecchia manager Litty Parker said she believes the uniqueness of her store will allow it to survive the competition.

As long as chain stores respect the history of the Old Port and remain in proportion, she said she is not concerned about them coming to the Old Port.

Sarah Beliveau, manager of Akari at 195 Middle St., said she is excited about the arrival of Urban Outfitters across the street.

“I love that place,” she said.

Beliveau said she is not concerned about the impact on business, since clothing is only part of Akari’s business, which also features a spa and salon.

“I think it’s going to be great for business,” she said.

Gregg Thurlow, owner of Club 21 at Exchange and Milk streets, agreed. Thurlow said the addition of Urban Outfitters could compel more local retailers to keep later hours and create a more bustling Old Port.

“It will bring people down here,” Thurlow said. “People aren’t going to shop at just one store.”

Thurlow admitted that the store would be a direct competitor to his business, but said “competition is good.”

Chain stores are not unprecedented in the Old Port. National chains already doing business include Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Five Guys Burgers.

Beitzer said PDD takes a lot of pride in its local businesses. She doesn’t believe the introduction of Urban Outfitters will be a watershed moment that will drown local retailers in high rents.

“That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in Portsmouth (N.H.),” she said, noting the presence of chain and local retailers. “Market rates tend to be market rates.”

Ultimately, Beitzer said she believes the store will only add to downtown’s character and the bottom lines of local businesses.

“It will bring some people to downtown who haven’t been here before and then (they) will discover the other wonderful shops we have,” she said.

Urban Outfitters is a publicly traded company that operates half a dozen retail brands, including Anthropologie. It has more than 140 stores in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

The company has won awards for preservation of historic properties, including its corporate headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. But it has also been criticized for selling T-shirts and other products that promote stereotypes and messages considered insensitive and demeaning by some religious and ethnic groups.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

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Urban Outfitters plans to open a Portland store at the old Pavilion nightclub at 188 Middle St.

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