Volume 19 • Issue 15 | August 25 - 31, 2006

Small businesses are being plowed under by rebuilding

Downtown Express photo by Jennifer Weisbord

The Downtown Alliance put up this colorful sign to encourage shoppers to walk down Maiden Lane.

By David Spett

Construction Downtown might mean the end of Joe Pinkas’s 50-year-old small business.

Pinkas is the owner of Sydmor Sportswear, a women’s clothing, hosiery and lingerie store at John and Nassau Sts.

“My sidewalk is basically closed, and the street is blocked by big trucks,” Pinkas said. “There’s not enough people to sustain the business.”

Sales are down 25 to 30 percent since construction on John St. began about six months ago, Pinkas said.

“I have no idea when it will be done,” he said of the construction. “I think it will take too long.”

Many Downtown small business owners and managers say their stores are feeling the crunch. Some, like Sydmor Sportswear, are facing challenges from building construction, street closures and other bottlenecks. Around the Fulton St. Transit Center, others are reeling from the M.T.A.’s use of eminent domain to seize their property. And with construction picking up at the World Trade Center site and on other Downtown rebuilding projects, construction problems may last for years for some small businesses if they don’t close before then.

Pinkas expressed concern with new residential developments Downtown. He said the residents “are not my customers [and] don’t help the area. They don’t shop here.”

Times are almost as bad as after 9/11, Pinkas said, and the thought of closing has crossed his mind.

Other store managers had similar complaints about construction equipment blocking cars and pedestrians.

“[Business] could be better. With the construction, everybody goes to the other streets because they see scaffolds,” said Nanda Udairaj, manager of Nassau Electronics, a cell phone store on Nassau St. between John and Fulton Sts.

Omer Herguner, the manager of Zeytuna, a specialty grocery store at Maiden Lane and William St., said business is down “a little bit.” But he said a bigger problem is that delivery trucks often cannot make deliveries because streets in the area are closed.

One of the few Downtown stores that didn’t complain was MetroNaps, a pay-to-nap facility that opened in March on Nassau St. between Ann and Beekman Sts. Co-owner Larry Green, Jr., said the business is doing well despite the closure of Ann St. only a block away. Green said sales would be fine so long as Nassau St. is not closed.

Businesses that aren’t as lucky as MetroNaps should reach out to the Alliance for Downtown New York, said the group’s president, Eric Deutsch. The alliance, which runs the Financial District’s business improvement district, is funded by local property owners.

Deutsch touted the alliance’s work to boost local business, particularly at the corner of Maiden Lane and Broadway, a major spot of construction.

“We put up signage along the corner of Maiden and Broadway, which was a very colorful sign,” he said. “It has a long list of all the businesses on Maiden Lane to remind people that while there’s construction there, Maiden Lane is open for business.”

But with construction all over Downtown, Deutsch acknowledged, “I can’t tell you the storeowners are all pleased.”

Those that aren’t pleased can contact people working with the alliance’s construction mitigation project.

“We work actively as a liaison between affected businesses and those who are doing the work,” Deutsch said of the project. “Sometimes we can get things moved around to help them, and sometimes we can’t, but we try our best.”

With more people moving to Lower Manhattan, Deutsch said businesses are changing Downtown. He pointed out that many chain stores, including Hermes, Tiffany & Co. and Sephora have opened or will soon open Downtown.

Coupled with the success of new independent stores like Papyrus, a card store at 233 Broadway, and the Greene Grape, a “fine wine” store at 55 Liberty St., Deutsch said many businesses are thriving despite street and sidewalk closures.

“Ultimately, this is a change in the way business operates,” Deutsch said, adding that the change also comes from a loss of business workers from the World Trade Center. “There’s a pretty lengthy list of new retailers Downtown. There’s still very good opportunity in retailing in Lower Manhattan.”

Robin Forst, director of community relations for the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, a group charged with coordinating and overseeing major construction projects Downtown, would not comment on the state of small businesses overall but said her group tries to ensure that construction does not cause harm.

“While it’s not possible to avoid the impact of construction in many cases, we try where we can to both communicate to businesses that may be affected and also to mitigate the impact where possible,” Forst said. “If there’s going to be a road closed, we work oftentimes with the Downtown Alliance or the community board to let them know about planned closures.”

Forst did not name a specific business the L.M.C.C.C. had helped, saying it would violate privacy. But she said that the organization helped several businesses that complained about an increase in rodents from a nearby construction site.

“We worked with D.O.T. as well as the contractor to increase the baiting that was done and to ensure that the contractor did a better job in keeping construction sites tidy and removing garbage at the end of each business day,” Forst said.

But there are some small businesses the Downtown Alliance and L.M.C.C.C. cannot help — namely, the 78 businesses forced to close by the M.T.A. to make way for the new Fulton St. Transit Center.

Steven Mandel, the 30-year-old manager of Renaissance Jewelers, at Broadway and John St., is furious with the M.T.A., which compensated him $43,000 for his store.

“What is $43,000? It doesn’t do anything. I’d rather get nothing,” Mandel said. “If they gave me zero, I could just call them animals. They took my identity away with a check like that.”

Around noon on a Friday, Renaissance Jewelers was bustling with customers. Mandel said business has been “great,” just recently returning to pre-9/11 levels, making him even more disappointed that he has to leave. The M.T.A.’s check, he said, barely pays for the furniture in his store, let alone the jewelry.

“I’m all for the development of Downtown,” Mandel said, noting his support for connecting more subway lines to the W.T.C. station’s PATH trains. But he doesn’t believe the new transit center should cost him his store.

Renaissance Jewelers, a block away from the W.T.C, opened 13 years ago and has lasted through both W.T.C. attacks. Mandel has lived blocks away the entire time, leading him to believe that his family-owned jewelry business deserves better treatment.

“Osama bin Laden missed us by a few inches and the M.T.A. has finished the job,” he said.

Mandel said Renaissance was one of the first Downtown stores to reopen after 9/11. Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference outside to say the jewelry store was revitalizing the city.

“We were down here putting masks on after 9/11,” Mandel said. “God knows how sick you could get.”

Mandel isn’t sure if the store will be able to relocate nearby. Rent in the area has tripled, and landlords are requiring storeowners to sign 10-year leases, he said, adding that he might not be able to sign such a long-term lease.

“We might have to move to Jersey,” he said regretfully.

“Look at the traffic of people,” he continued while pointing out the window. “Nowhere in the world is like this place. Everyone’s here. This is the capital of the world.”

The M.T.A. wants Renaissance — and 77 other nearby tenants — out by Aug. 31. About 40 stores sued in State Supreme Court to stay longer, but after several larger corporations backed out of the suit, Renaissance decided to give up.

Tim O’Brien, an M.T.A. spokesperson, said the agency has fully complied with the law in evicting businesses.

“In fact, we have gone above what is required by federal and state law to facilitate the movement of these tenants,” O’Brien said. “We’re doing everything we can to make this treatment easy for them. I’d consider this fair.”


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