CLOSED FOR BUSINESS
ruby foo's is gone. circuit city will follow soon. monsoon has been empty for years. and plenty of other spots stand vacant. it's not only large chains or neighborhood favorites that are suffering; plenty of upper west side businesses are feeling the pinch of an economy gone sour, and there is no more obvious sign of troubled times than unoccupied storefronts. no west sider can ignore their increasing numbers.
"i think that everybody is scared. everybody is worried," said barbara adler, executive director of the columbus avenue business improvement district, which runs from 67th to 82nd streets. "if people haven't been affected yet, they're worried that it will soon catch up with them. there's definitely a contagious type of feeling [about the economy.]"
to discover exactly how the financial climate has affected businesses, west side spirit conducted a survey on feb. 20 of broadway, amsterdam and columbus avenues from 59th to 110th streets and discovered a total of 103 empty, on-the-avenue lots. five more had announced their imminent closure and 11 others were closed but planned to open with new shops in the month ahead. overall, 8.44 percent of individual stores on these three avenues stood empty that day. amsterdam was the worst off, with nearly a tenth of its lots unoccupied.
while it is impossible without similar data from 2008 to judge how much has changed in the past year, or even since financial markets truly began crumbling in september, the situation is clearly not good. one thing is for sure: many local retailers are nervous.
"it seemed like a really good idea in july, but by november and december i was starting to wonder," said david endo, owner of the vitamin peddler on amsterdam avenue between 77th and 78th streets.
endo opened his store in december after a nearby outpost of the health nuts, where he had worked for 18 years, closed several months before that, a victim of spiraling rent demands. business has picked up in the past two months, though, and endo is hopeful for the future.
"it's been a bigger hill than i anticipated," he conceded. "we have enough initial capital to keep going. i'm just not paying myself."
the degree of economic trouble varies from area to area. some avenues can boast of stretches with no vacancies. in other places, the problem is acute. there are 10 stores closed and one about to shut its doors on amsterdam avenue between 92nd and 93rd streets, for instance (see sidebar). there are 19 shuttered shops on a stretch of columbus avenue between 104th and 110th streets.
"everybody is stressed," said peter arndtsen, district manager of the columbus/amsterdam business improvement district, which covers those two avenues from 92nd to 110th streets. "we're in a particularly bad situation because on columbus, a number of stores were emptied a couple of years ago with the intent of bringing in higher-priced stores, and it didn't happen. those remain empty. i've got almost a dozen stores in that situation."
this problem of lots remaining closed for extended periods of time is particularly noticeable, a distinct departure from the normal ebb and flow of business in a commercial area. some stores close and simply remain that way. they can go many months, even years without reopening.
"no business area likes to have empty stores," adler said. "it brings a negative image."
the old morris brothers space at broadway and 84th street has stayed empty for almost two years, except for brief respites as a temporary costume store leading up to halloween. the murder ink bookstore has been out of business since the end of 2006, but its awning remains prominent at broadway between 92nd and 93rd streets because no other store has filled the space. a spot at the corner of broadway and 76th street has stayed vacant since cosi left for roomier digs a block north several years ago. endo's former workplace has remained unoccupied since the health nuts pulled up stakes last summer.
arndtsen said it's somewhat unclear what's driving owners to leave properties unoccupied.
"it's hard to say at this point whether it's stubbornness or an unwillingness to deal with the problem," he said.
his organization's website has recently added a section listing local commercial vacancies.
according to rafe evans, a commercial real estate broker at walker malloy and company, some landlords simply aren't willing to adjust to a new economy and market realities.
"it's almost always that they're unrealistic," he said. "they end up with empty stores, and sometimes they're slow learners. it may take them a while to realize that they're not going to get the sky and the moon. there's no law that says business people have to be logical, and some of them just aren't. they just fixate on a number, and the cost/benefit analysis does not support waiting forever to get a few extra dollars per square foot. it's irrational and it's illogical. it gives owners a bad name, and it looks bad for the neighborhood."
that scenario seems to be playing out for small independent retailers like karin alexis, who shut down her eponymous store for children's clothing on broadway between 97th and 98th streets last week. she was forced to vacate and become an online-only operation due to high rents and slumping sales.
"obviously, the economy is terrible and the landlords are unwilling to make concessions on the rent, which was high to begin with," she said. "we've all been battling high rents for years. this has been a problem for at least 10 years: the rents being out of line with retail sales. we asked our landlord to reduce the rent even temporarily. we made the decision that it didn't make any sense anymore. i have a bit of a sentimental attachment to bricks and mortar retail, but it's almost unfeasible to have a small business in new york city anymore. i don't know what will happen to the neighborhood. i think we're going to see a lot of empty stores, which isn't good for the city. it's not good for anyone."
some developers also clearly failed to anticipate tough times. the cavernous retail spaces of two new apartment buildings at broadway between 99th and 100th streets remain unfilled long after construction wrapped up, though urban outfitters has reportedly signed a 20-year lease for the long-empty former metro theater nearby (the company did not respond to calls for comment).
a few areas of the upper west side are not suffering as much or are at least able to ride out the economic downturn without witnessing many closings, perhaps partly because of landlord flexibility.
"merchants are certainly feeling that things are tough, but we're remarkably lucky that we have very few vacancies, and even those vacancies are spoken for," adler said. "some of my board members who are property owners have reduced the rents for a six-month period in order to ease this hard time. it's taken that crunch off."
some retailers are better suited for an economic downturn. while high-priced boutiques are clearly suffering, shops with more moderate prices say they are doing ok, even if business is not booming.
"i don't think people have completely stopped spending, but they're totally watching every dollar," said bonnie zijic, the manager at laila rowe, a jewelry and accessories store at columbus and 72nd street. "they're thinking about the future and doing what they can to cut costs. the concept here in general is that $20 is a lot of money in here. i'm not going to say that we're gangbusters with lines out the doors, but i'm making the sales that corporate headquarters wants me to."
on the other hand, few sectors are suffering as much as restaurants and other eateries. in an industry where the profit margin has always been slight, decreased consumer spending has pushed many establishments into the red, and that's led to some padlocked doors. ruby foo's (broadway between 77th and 78th) and bloomingdale road (broadway and 88th) are only the latest casualties. earlier ones include monsoon, tokyo pop (broadway, between 104th and 105th), vinacciolo (broadway, between 98th and 99th), neptune room (amsterdam, between 84th and 85th), homemade bakeshop (amsterdam, between 78th and 79th), 88 noodle house (columbus, between 88th and 89th) and westside brewing company (amsterdam and 76th), among others.
still, restaurateurs are not fully deterred. the two storefronts that formerly hosted zen palate and dale and thomas popcorn, on broadway between 76th and 77th streets, were empty for a long time, but they were finally filled by fatty crab, a new outpost of a meatpacking district restaurant, opening this week.
"there's not a lot of difference between making money and losing money in any given month," said rick camac, fatty crab's managing partner. "we know what last quarter was like and what this quarter is looking like, and there's nothing good about it. we can't say we're not nervous. we're absolutely nervous. the economy does scare me, but i would do the same thing all over again and i feel confident that people will come out to eat."
that sort of attitude indicates general optimism for the months ahead, and many shop managers and employees responded cautiously but hopefully when asked how they're faring in the current economy. but the bad news can be unrelenting. since west side spirit conducted its survey, two stores (karin alexis and a hardware store on broadway between 77th and 78th streets) that were planning to close have shuttered their doors for good, and two others (a best buy cellular outpost at broadway between 79th and 80th, and docks oyster bar on broadway between 89th and 90th) unexpectedly closed down as well.
"it's not a good thing for the neighborhood," council member gale brewer said. "i don't think it's terrible on the west side right now, but i would urge owners to rent to sustainable, local commercial enterprises, ones that would have repeat customers."
for rent: entire west side block
few spots on the upper west side look quite as desolate as the block on amsterdam avenue between 92nd and 93rd streets. ten of the stores there are closed and another one is in the process of shutting down. according to craig slosberg, a real estate broker at newmark knight frank, the problem began several years ago when a previous developer planned to add eight floors to the original five-story building along the west side of the street.
"between the opposition of the community board and the residents of the building, he wasn't able to do so," slosberg said. "while he was planning this, he allowed all the leases to expire. so through attrition, he let the building become more vacant."
the former developer sold the building a year ago to a new one currently represented by slosberg, who is trying to attract leasers to the empty storefronts. he hopes to have them filled soon.
"we find the market strong, but the rents may not be where they were a year ago," he said. "there's still strong interest to operate retail stores on the upper west side."
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