Volume 18 • Issue 21 | October 14 - 20, 2005

Shops moving to make room for train project

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel
Shops and offices in the Corbin Building, left, will soon have to leave for construction of the Fulton Transit Center.

By Ronda Kaysen

It’s never easy owning a small business in Manhattan. Rent is high, competition is fierce and customers are fickle. But some shop owners near the Fulton subway station face a new obstacle: eminent domain.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to seize five properties near Fulton St. and Broadway under the powers of eminent domain in order to build a new $785 million Fulton Street Transit Center that will combine the confusing Broadway/Nassau/Fulton stations in to one and connect it to the Calatrava-designed PATH station at the W.T.C. In total, 114 commercial tenants will be displaced, including the tenants in the historic Corbin Building, which will be preserved. The first tenants, those west of Broadway, will likely be out by the end of the year. The remaining tenants should be gone by the following August, making way for the new hub, which will be completed in 2008.

Moving “is very risky,” said Mirza Mamur, standing behind the counter of his print and frame store, Glamour Art Gallery at 189 Broadway, a wall of picture frames behind him. “Everywhere you go you see stores going out of business and that worries me.” All six businesses in the two-story structure on the corner of Dey St. will move by the end of the year.

While property owners are entitled to receive fair market value for their properties, shopkeepers will only be reimbursed for moving costs up to $25,000. The M.T.A. will not compensate shopkeepers for the higher rents they might pay elsewhere and the time spent luring a new clientele to their business.

“We have a large team of people working with the tenants,” William Wheeler, director of project development for the M.T.A. told Community Board 1 in July. “I would characterize” — the tenant’s experience with eminent domain proceedings — “as a learning process. They’re getting used to what the benefits really are.”

Mamur has yet to notice any benefits. He opened his store, a narrow shop covered from floor to ceiling with framed prints, four years ago and worries he might not find such a well-traveled location with affordable rent elsewhere. Glamour Art Gallery is located a block away from the W.T.C. site and opened four months after Sept. 11. “We were targeting the future, for when they rebuild the World Trade Center site,” he said. He has revised his expectations: he now hopes to be able to stay through the holidays.

For some business owners, the cost of moving far outweighs anything the M.T.A. has offered. Mohamed Elfeky, owner of Manhattan Muffin in the Corbin building on John St. estimates it will cost as much as $800,000 to move his bakery. “It’s going to be hard,” said Elfeky. “We’re like a small factory here.” His bakery is located on two levels with ovens and mixers and other baking machinery. Elfeky has built a solid customer base over the 13 years his business has been in the Corbin and worries he will vanish with the store. “I’m going to be like a brand new store somewhere else,” he said.

James Logan, head librarian for the Christian Science Reading Room in the Corbin building worries his business will not be adequately compensated either. Although the price of moving — which will be covered — is modest, the cost of remodeling a new space is anything but. The reading room, which has been Downtown since 1911, moved into its John St. location in 2003 after it left 5 W.T.C. in 1999. It is freshly renovated with blond wood floors, new bookshelves, a computer room and plush furnishings. Logan declined to say how much the renovation cost, but said it was “substantial.”

“It’s obvious that the retail tenants are not well cared for” in the eminent domain proceedings, he said.

Eminent domain can only be evoked in the service of “public use,” according to the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. A June Supreme Court ruling against Connecticut property owners, however, further strengthened eminent domain laws. The Fulton Transit Hub is a clear case of eminent domain, leaving business owners little recourse to fight the transit authority.

“The writing’s been on the wall, what am I going to do?” said Geoff Feder, owner of Cookie Island at 189 Broadway. “Of course you’re upset, it’s a drag, it’s a total drag. It’d be a drag if I had to move my doghouse across the street.”

Aside from the “drag” of moving, finding a new location in the neighborhood at all might prove to be impossible for many of these shopkeepers as they suddenly flood a market already short on retail space because of a spate of residential conversions in recent years.

“There’s no space Downtown,” said David Rakhminov, owner of Alex Tailor Shop, as he bent over a sewing machine working on a leather coat in the tiny street level John St. shop. It moved to the Corbin building six months ago, after its previous location converted to residential condos.

“What says that the next building I move into the owner isn’t going to say that he wants out of renting to small businesses?” said Cynthia Callsen, a psychologist with a private practice in the Corbin building. “There’s no security going forward for small businesses.”

Most of the business owners Downtown Express spoke to for this story were resigned to their fate, however, agreeing the transit hub is a necessary part of the neighborhood’s redevelopment. Many have an existential view of their unfortunate role in the story of the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. “Take a map of New York and start a business somewhere and then take a dart and throw it at the map,” said Feder. “Well you just hit us.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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