Seaport Shops Sending Out SOS

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Many of the small businesses near the South Street Seaport are struggling to repoen after devastating hurricane damage.

By Caroline Lewis

Council Member Diana Reyna listens to a South Street Seaport small business owner talk about rebuilding her business after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Aaron Adler

Made Fresh Daily, an all-natural café in the once-bustling South Street Seaport neighborhood, enjoyed a buzzing lunch hour on a recent Monday afternoon, seven weeks after Hurricane Sandy left a high-water mark halfway up the large window that looks out on historic Front Street. 
The triumphant café is the first to be profiled for the “Support NYC Small Businesses” campaign, centered around an interactive map of shops that are “Back in Business,” created in partnership with Yelp. But the view from owner Jacqueline Goewey’s café window is still bleak. Fourteen of her Front Street neighbors are shuttered.

“Our furniture was completely tossed around like rag dolls. There was nothing to repair,” said Fernando Dallorso, the owner of Stella Restaurant on Front Street.

The old landmark buildings in the Seaport District housed more than 100 small businesses before the storm: coffee shops, pet grooming, restaurants, retail stores. Many of their fates remain uncertain. Before he can think about reopening, Dallorso needs to appeal denied insurance claims and to figure out when—if—he will be able to return to his old building. He is banding together with other small business owners in the neighborhood, not just to seek legal and financial support, but also to bring back the concentration of diverse shops that make the Seaport an attraction.

“This has set the neighborhood 10 years back into history,” Dallorso said. “I don’t want to be the one guy, if I’m lucky and get power, to be standing in 10 blocks that are decimated.”

Last year, Lower Manhattan was one of New York’s fastest-growing communities, according to a report by New York City Small Business Services, but many residents and corporate employees have moved their homes and offices following the storm. Robert LaValva hosts a seasonal open-air market in the Seaport with 150 small entrepreneurs.

“It’s the small, independent local businesses that make [this neighborhood] an interesting place to come to and spend time in, so we very much see the whole neighborhood as interconnected,” he said.

“We’re really hoping that whatever solutions are worked out by various levels of government are very small-business focused,” LaValva said.

Mayor Bloomberg announced multiple initiatives to speed along the recovery process for small businesses this month, including individualized help for those in Business Recovery Zones like the Seaport District.

“Let’s get to the bottom of why we’ve been closed so long, why we’re going to continue to be closed,” said Amanda Byron, owner of a dog spa called the Salty Paw. “I can’t afford to take out any more loans. I’ve been in this neighborhood 17 years. I went through 9/11. Lots of us are paying back those loans from 9/11. We need grants.”

Low-interest loans are available from both city and federal agencies for small businesses impacted by the storm. So far, SBS has issued $4.2 million in loans to small businesses and has hundreds of applications pending. The loans must be paid back within two years, but the mayor also created a fund to offer matching grants of up to $10,000.

Grants with no strings attached are harder to come by. The Downtown Alliance closed the application window for its Back to Business Grant after being flooded with applications. The organization awarded the first grants to Lower Manhattan businesses this week and set aside $120,000 in deferred grants to be held for six applicants in South Street Seaport until they reopen.
Byron submitted her application, but said that even if she gets a grant from the Downtown Alliance, she may not be able to reopen by their April 30, 2013, deadline.

“We need grants that can help us rebuild,” Byron said.

Matthew Young, who helps to administer federal loans, now shares an office with SBS in order to streamline the loan application process.

“Some people are waiting on their insurance, they’re waiting on their grant money. We don’t need all that other information to get the process started,” Young said. “Get that application in so we can see if we can approve that loan.”

Dallorso is skeptical.

“None of us who already lost an average of three, four, five hundred thousand dollars, wants to get any further in debt by borrowing any money,” Dallorso said. “And the application, no matter what they say, is not that easy. It’s not that simple and it’s depending on your own capability to repay. I just lost my shop, I just lost my income,” Dallorso said. “What is my capability to repay? I have no idea.”

His uncertainty has a lot to do with the state of the building to which he is trying to return.

“Besides destroying all the retail spaces, [Hurricane Sandy] also destroyed all the building’s mechanical systems, meaning the heating, the cooling, the electrical systems, the light safety, all the pumps,” explained Jordan Barowitz, a representative of the Durst Fetner development company, which owns the property where Stella Restaurant and a dozen or so other businesses were located.

“They’re old buildings. It’s a landmark project, they’re 200 years old.”

In addition to replacing floors and walls, Barowitz said the company plans to install a modern mechanical system that would be more resilient in the case of future disasters; one that would not be located in the basement. He could not yet give a timeline for completing all the work that has to be done.

“There’s also tremendous stress on the contractor and mechanical supply community and that’s making it even more difficult,” said Barowitz.

Mayor Bloomberg and Community Board 1 are pushing the approval of a new development for the undamaged Pier 17, featuring a multi-use glass structure, according to schedule.

“We just want to make sure that it’s done as quickly as possible with as much consideration for the individual businesses as possible,” said Michael Levine, director of planning and land use on Community Board 1.

For small-business owners, time is money.

“It’s great that we can open Wednesday,” said Sara Williams, co-owner of Fresh Salt on Beekman Street. Two days before re-opening, Williams stood amid frantic construction on the still-unfinished bar. Her building owner was able to agree to a rush re-construction job and had some friends who were contractors.

“But we’re going to be in trouble if we can’t get them back with us,” Williams said, looking toward empty storefronts across the street. “They have a whole other host of issues that I feel very lucky that we don’t, but at the same time, we are all together in this area and that’s how people’s perception of us is. We do need them open.”

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