Businesses struggle to stay open – and many have closed – amid the subway construction taking over the avenue
For Upper East Side residents, 2nd Avenue is the warzone in their backyard. Sidewalks diminished or closed altogether, chain link fences block storefront views, and of course the incessant drilling and humming of construction work. For several years now, 2nd Avenue has played host to the MTA, as the final stages of work on the 2nd Avenue Subway line progress. The work is expected to be finished by 2016, but it will be too late for the dozens of businesses who have lost their customer base, moved, or shut down altogether simply because passersby could not find their store amid the maze-like confusion of orange cones and temporary sidewalks.
Walking down 2nd Avenue, we found 19 stores that were shuttered or emptied, from 76th to 90th Street. Comparatively, only nine empty stores were found on 3rd Avenue between along that same 14-block span. Some of the stores and restaurants had been gone for years, like Tini’s Restaurant at 81st and 2nd, which shut its doors six years ago. But one bar, at 2nd Avenue and 83rd Street, had only shut down last week.
Stores that are still managing to stay afloat are sending out a message: “We’re still here!” One bar, Merion Square, even has “Shop Local” spray painted in large letters on the side of its building. And the stores that have not shut down are still feeling the effects of construction taking over their block. Kyund Min, who owns a deli and convenience store on 2nd Ave and 84th Street, said that she might have to close her store soon after 18 years of operation.
“Look around; there are no customers in here,” said Min. “How can I pay the rent when people buy from the deli on the other side of the street because they don’t have construction blocking them?”
Most store and restaurant owners interviewed said that they have struggled immensely in the past few years, and that it all comes down to foot traffic. Even if they have built up a customer base, people rarely walk by these stores anymore because the sidewalks are too difficult to navigate, and the construction makes 2nd Avenue unpleasant, according to many shop owners.
“Foot traffic is virtually nonexistent; people just turn the corner go their destination, you don’t see anyone walking up and down the block,” said Bob Schwartz,the owner of Eneslow Shoes between 78th and 79th Streets. “As far as business is concerned the biggest negative is these days, the area is a barren wasteland.
Caryn Klausner, who owns Promises Fulfilled, a small toy and craft store on 2nd Avenue and 83rd Street, says that she has a reliable customer base, but many of her customers drive in from out of town to pick up their gift items. Nobody wants to come she said, because there’s no place to park. Instead her employees will have to deliver packages to cars parked a couple of blocks away.
In fact, a strained relationship with the MTA is one of the top problems that businesses on 2nd Avenue claim. Nick Petrou, a manager at Nick’s Pizza at 2nd and 94th Street, points to his cracked front door and damaged bar that the MTA never helped to fix. Andrea Zeugi, a bartender at Merion Square Bar at 95th Street, claims that the MTA accidentally filled the basement of their pub with cement and never fixed it. She said that the owners had to pay a hefty sum to have the cement removed.
“The MTA doesn’t care about us,” said Zeugi. “We used to have two bartenders and waiters during the day, and now it’s just me. Luckily we’ve been around for 10 years.”
During the peak years of frustration, there were after-business hours meetings organized by people like Caryn Klausner, who would talk about ways to increase business. But lately, said Klausner, people don’t come to the meetings anymore. Joe Pecora, owner of Delizia Pizza on 2nd and 92nd, started a 2nd Avenue Business Association, but Delizia claims that he has not been as involved anymore. It seems that despite the once-steady stream of letters and complaints to the MTA, many businesses have accepted the situation.
But 2nd Avenue is not rolling over and playing dead yet. In fact, Shop 2nd Ave., an organization run by the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, and endorsed by the MTA, has been doing little things to keep business alive, like promoting Small Business Saturday, or putting up signs at the construction sites that read: “We’re Open!” and list nearby stores for casual passersby.
This year, 2nd Avenue will be holding its first annual 2nd Avenue Street Festival (held on 3rd Avenue for convenience) in June, with vendors promoting their goods to visitors. In addition, there will be another 2nd Avenue Restaurant Week from June 1st-8th. The MTA will also soon be opening up a 2nd Avenue subway community center on 2nd and 84th, where residents and businesses can have their questions answered.
“We are trying to do is to take a more positive approach and not highlight the empty stores,” said Nancy Ploeger, the president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “What tends to happen to small unsuccesful businesses, is they are not able to change their business model to adapt to the climate. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, go in and wonder why there’s no customers.”
Ploeger says that the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce sees this string of closed stores and quick turn-over as a borough-wide problem, and not necessarily just on 2nd Avenue. She claims that 1st and 3rd Avenues have had almost the same percentage of vacant stores as 2nd Avenue.
By our count, however, between 76th and 90th Streets, there were only 9 vacant stores, as compared with the 19 on 2nd Avenue. But can all of the store closings be attributed to the construction?
“It’s hard to separate reasonings, but businesses are closing because profits are down 30 percent, whether that’s due to the economy or the construction,” said Bob Schwartz. “The MTA is doing the best they can to help. I certainly don’t envy them.”
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