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BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | The strong smell of shoe polish permeated the air while the rhythmic swipe-swipe of a cloth burnishing shoe could be heard as Carmine Colletti discussed the uncertain fate of his shoe repair store at Brookfield Place.
Along with his brother, Charlie, the Collettis have been a part of the Battery Park City office complex since 1988. Now, they are in danger of losing their lease for their shop, Cobbler Express Shoe Repair, at 200 Liberty St., formerly 1 World Financial Center.
“It’s bothering me to even think to lose the Financial Center because I grew up there,” said Charlie, 52. “It’s where my heart is. And I started that business from nothing.”
When Brookfield Place decided to renovate the complex, investing $250 million to do so over the last few years, several stores lost their lease and left. Due to the construction, the Collettis’ shop was moved from its spot facing the marina, near the restaurant, SouthWest NY, which is no longer a part of the complex, to its current site.
“This was supposed to be a temporary move,” explained Carmine, 50.
The shop has had three venues: the first behind the Winter Garden’s marble stairs, the second facing the marina near the Winter Garden, after Sept. 11, and their current position.
The move was three years ago and the Collettis said they would like to move back near the Winter Garden, but it is unclear if they will even be able to hold on to their current location. They were offered a lease for only one more year.
The best location for business, Charlie said, was near SouthWest after Sept. 11. Carmine said that business now further from the bustle is not great.
“I mean, I used to have five, six guys working for me, now I’m down to two,” said Carmine.
Their spot, which Carmine called more of kiosk, is so small that equipment necessary to do repairs doesn’t fit — and that is also cutting into revenue.
After selling shoe repair supplies in the ‘80s, Charlie realized that he wanted to open a shoe repair shop — and he already had the perfect role model: his father, who owned his own store in Bay Ridge for several decades.
The Collettis’ roots stretch to a small town in Sicily, where they were both born. Their grandfather was a craftsman who made shoes, with a focus on boots.
“My parents still have a house there,” said Carmine. “There’s my grandfather’s house [and] my father redid it.”
Their father came to New York City in 1969 and the two brothers followed in 1973, growing up in Bay Ridge.
Charlie, who was only 25 at the time, saw an opportunity with the opening of the World Financial Center.
“I was one of the first stores,” he told Downtown Express during a visit to his other shop, Stanley’s Cobbler Shop, at 11 Thames St. in the Financial District. “I thought it was a good location for a shoe repair shop — with all the businesses that were down here at the time. At the time, it made a lot of sense to me.”
One former Downtowner, Andrew Cuomo, was a frequent customer before he became governor, Charlie said.
The brothers have seen the area dramatically change since the late ‘80s.
“When I first came down here, I don’t think there were many residential buildings,” recalled Charlie. “And I only remember one hotel when I got down here — the Vista [International] Hotel that was under the World Trade Center. Now there are hotels and residential buildings on every corner.”
In 2000, when Charlie decided to open up shop on Thames and his partner retired, he asked Carmine, who was then an aircraft mechanic for the now defunct airline TWA, to join him and run the shop at the World Financial Center.
“There was nothing down here when we [first] opened,” said Carmine, who said the majority of their customers were from the companies housed in the complex: American Express, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers.
“It changed after 9/11,” he said. “Not a lot of companies come down, come back. It took a little time to reestablish the business after we opened again. The community was around then so it was a lot easier to rebuild it.”
Both brothers said that they have a good relationship with Brookfield Place, which declined to comment for this article.
“They have always been fair to us,” said Carmine. “We never had an issue with them.”
He said it is “pretty much a done deal” to open another shop at One New York Plaza, which is another Brookfield property on Whitehall St., but they also hope to be able to stay somewhere in Brookfield Place. Charlie called it a “bump in the road.”
However, the Collettis did present to Community Board 1’s Battery Park City Committee on Tues., Jan. 6. They said they wanted to let the community know what is going on.
“[Brookfield was] creating a new spot that would accommodate me along with other small business people,” Charlie said at the meeting. “Now, my understanding is, it probably won’t happen.
“I don’t want to really give up the space,” he continued. “I don’t want to give up the location. I think the community, people Downtown, the people that work here, need a business like mine.”
The committee discussed a resolution that would ask Brookfield’s consideration of small businesses “that have really been the foundation for decades in our community,” said Anthony Notaro, the committee’s chairperson.
“I think that people who came here and rebuilt this neighborhood after 9/11 — and that was a risk,” said Justine Cuccia, a public member of the committee. “They took a chance to come back. They need not be thrown out now that they made something successful.”
Committee member Tom Goodkind said Brookfield is going “extremely upscale now and that’s their right. I don’t mind it being upscale. In fact, it seems like a lot of stores will be very nice.”
Brookfield Place has been signing leases with high-end retail that includes Hermes, Salvatore Ferragamo, Theory, Tory Burch and Davidoff Cigars.
Notaro said that while the community board, due to its advisory nature, cannot supporting a specific business, it does have the right to say that small businesses are a valuable part of the community.
Michael Fortenbaugh, who is at risk of losing his lease with the Battery Park City Authority for the North Cove Marina, expressed his support for small businesses.
“Battery Park City is meant to be the best small town in our city,” he said. “If I was in a small town … serving the community, I know the town will rally around that person.
“I certainly think that somebody has to go to bat for people. I’m willing to bat for them and I hope the whole community board’s willing to bat for people, just to make people have a fair chance.”
The committee passed the resolution.
Later, the brothers said that they were happy to be heard and to be given the opportunity to inform the community on what is happening.
Even though they both reside in Bay Ridge, they feel part of the Lower Manhattan community.
“It’s been nice down here,” said Carmine. “A lot of memories.”
Carmine said the best part of the job is talking to customers — everyone from a C.E.O. to a secretary to a security guard. Carmine has brought his children when they were younger for the Halloween parties and feels that he and members of the community, especially Gateway, have seen their children grow up.
Customers filed in while Charlie was being interviewed and he knew them and their names.
“I love to do this,” he said. “Things change as time goes on. Hopefully they’re doing the right thing down there.”
One of the customers, Kamran Khan, a New Jersey resident who has worked for seven years at Brookfield Place, said he always comes to Cobbler Express to get his shoes shined.
“These guys are good,” he said.