Second Annual Business Survey Shows Signs of Life on West Side

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Business isn’t booming yet, but commerce on the Upper West Side is definitely experiencing a comeback. That’s the consensus emerging from local business leaders and the conclusion indicated by West Side Spirit’s second business survey, conducted almost exactly a year after the first.

The methodology this year was the same: Feb. 22, West Side Spirit canvassed Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus avenues from West 59th to 110th streets, counting all the ground-floor, on-the-avenue businesses. Overall, 108 units stood empty, four were closing imminently and five more were planning to open soon. The total vacancy rate was 8.12 percent, slightly down from last year’s mark of 8.44 percent.

“Whether retailers are making the kinds of profits they made three years ago, I doubt it,” said Rafe Evans, a commercial real estate broker at Walker Malloy & Company. “But landlord and tenant expectations are matching up, which means spaces are getting rented. Right now, there’s a healthy turnover.”

Even though the percentage of vacancies has improved only minimally, there seems to be a general perception among businesses that the economy overall is slowly changing its course.

“I think that right now people are building to the future,” Evans said. “I don’t think that we’re experiencing a big turnaround in retailer profitability or consumer spending. Pessimism ruled our nature a year and a half ago. Now, people are crawling out and seeing some sunlight and they’re opening stores. Eventually, all this will pay a dividend.”

Among individual avenues, Amsterdam is still the worst off, but its vacancy rate improved the most, falling from 9.65 to 8.86 percent. Broadway’s numbers slid marginally, from 7.52 to 7.45 percent, and Columbus moved from 8.44 to 8.23 percent.

It is apparent, though, based on comments from leaders of the Upper West Side’s three Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), that the neighborhood’s commercial health is more accurately evaluated in geographical blocks rather than in long, thin avenues.

“I think it’s going really well,” said Barbara Adler, executive director of the Columbus Avenue BID, which stretches from West 67th to 82nd streets. “We have very few vacancies, so I think we’re doing okay. When I speak to various merchants and ask them how business is going, people have good things to say.”

Monica Blum, president of the Lincoln Square BID, which covers most of the area south of Adler’s district, was even more optimistic.

“We have a really low vacancy rate, and I have not seen any major changes over the past year,” she said. “Nothing that I can think of off the top of my head has closed, so I think we’re lucky. I know this isn’t the case for the entire Upper West Side, but fortunately in our district there seems to be very little movement.”

Those two areas are clearly buoyed by a wealthy local demographic and the twin economic pillars of Lincoln Center and the Time Warner Center. Farther north, though, the situation is not as good.

“Nobody’s doing really well,” said Peter Arndtsen, district manager of the Columbus/Amsterdam BID. “Things right now are hard, and everyone is feeling the pinch. People are watching how they spend money.”

Arndtsen oversees the area between West 92nd and 110th streets. Some spots within that region are bustling while others can seem like ghost towns. His overall vacancy rate is 11.94 percent.

“Amsterdam is fluid,” he said “Some places close down, but they tend to be snapped up pretty quickly. There is turnover, but it’s fairly rapid. Columbus is more of a problem. You need to have fairly high marketing ability to make it work on Columbus and, unfortunately, merchants are still dealing with high rents.”

Of particular concern to Arndtsen is the block on Columbus between West 108th and 109th streets. Six storefronts sit empty on the west side of the avenue, with Crêpes on Columbus the only holdout still operating.

“The building is being completely renovated,” said John Gendron, the landlord. “Those stores are going to be completely redone. There will be brand-new storefronts, all-new canopies. The whole building is going to look totally different. It’ll look as nice as any retail space on Columbus Avenue going all the way down to Midtown.”

The situation was similar to that of Amsterdam between West 92nd and 93rd streets a year ago. At that time, 10 stores were closed and another was about to shut down after plans for a development project fell through. Now there are only six units vacant.

“We’ve made progress with the street,” said Craig Slosberg, a real estate broker at Newmark Knight Frank. “We have leased three quarters of our spaces, and we’re just finishing up the last couple of stores that we have available with some restaurants. People have been finding the changes there very positive. We just needed to get the process started so that people could see what the block could be like.”

Anecdotal evidence likewise indicates a subtle turnaround for businesses. When West Side Spirit talked last year to Dave Endo, owner of The Vitamin Peddler on Amsterdam between West 77th and 78th streets, his store was new and struggling for survival. Twelve months later, though, he’s still open.

“This time last year, things were still very shaky,” Endo said. “But by October or November, I felt like I had gotten over that basic hump of survival. I’m doing OK in terms of surviving, but I was still hoping to be a little busier than I am now. I had wanted to hire another employee by now. I’m hoping that when things get better, all boats will rise, my business included.”

At the Columbus Square development, on Amsterdam and Columbus avenues between West 97th and 100th streets, leases are gradually getting snapped up. Incoming tenants include Chase Bank, Duane Reade, Modell’s Sporting Goods and a Borders bookstore. Thirty-thousand-square-feet of retail space on the ground floor still remains available, though.

Restaurants especially seem to be emerging with renewed confidence throughout the neighborhood. Docks Oyster Bar, which closed suddenly a year ago, was quickly replaced by Accademia di Vino, at Broadway between West 89th and 90th streets. A block south, (aged.), an outpost of a Queens steakhouse, opened a few weeks ago in the space formerly occupied by Aix and Bloomingdale Road.

“So far, we are doing well,” said Gregory Politis, the manager of (aged.). “All the customers are leaving happy. We want to make this a neighborhood place.”

Bar Boulud and Noche Mexicana are expanding or opening nearby annexes. And Fatty Crab and The West Branch have helped revitalize a block on Broadway between West 76th and 77th streets that had formerly stood nearly devoid of businesses.

“Restaurant spaces throughout the city are getting snapped up,” Evans said. “We’re seeing multiple offers on all of our vacant restaurants.”

Still, some businesses are struggling to open or stay open, and Michael Kim wants them to know that NYC Business Solutions can help. The organization, a city-run effort to assist small businesses, offers a wide range of free or subsidized services, including hiring, training and business planning. It can also set up businesses with alternative lenders and help them get government contracts. But Kim, an account manager with the division that helps businesses north of 42nd Street in Manhattan, feels his office is underutilized, especially in areas like the Upper West Side.

“We would love more businesses to take advantage, especially those that are looking to hire,” he said. “If we can save business owners time and money in such areas, they can focus their energies on something else, like expanding.”

Map Illustration by Monica Tang, Photo by Andrew Schwartz

With additional reporting by Samuel Chamberlain.

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