Bleecker Street businesses hope holiday shopping campaign will help reduce vacancies

A vacant-storefront-ridden Bleecker Street will witness a grass roots rejuvenation effort this holiday season, designed to restore the neighborhood staple’s dwindling charm.

#ShopBleecker, a holiday campaign organized by The Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, kicked off Nov. 1 with events, raffles and tours offered by 60 participating businesses, executive director Maria L. Diaz said.

Bleecker Street, like so many other parts of the city, has been plagued with ground floor vacancies in recent years. In April, the Chamber counted 38 empty storefronts, with fewer than 200 small businesses still operating between Eighth Avenue and Bowery, according to Diaz.

“The reality is that everybody is hurting,” she said.

The problem partly dates to the dot-com bubble and how it changed the way retail is driven globally, according to Louis Puopolo, senior broker at Douglas Elliman Commercial.

As people changed the way they shopped, "the cultural infrastructure changed," Puopolo explained, pointing to the influx of high fashion stores along Bleecker Street as a prime example. Commercial rents quadrupled and the independently owned businesses that had been on Bleecker for decades became the hardest hit during the transformation.

The current trend of expensive fashion stores moving to the neighboring, commercially zoned Meatpacking District has thinned traffic on the block, which has “taken a lot of luster away from Bleecker,” Puopolo added.

Amid high rents and low foot traffic complaints from tenants, Bleecker Street’s vacant storefronts have troubled local residents as well.

Peter May, 65, commonly known in the neighborhood as “The Dude,” is a longtime member of the community. Sitting in the corner of The Red Lion, he pointed out forgotten places from the sports bar’s window. The Village Gate in all of its musical glory is now a CVS pharmacy. The old Circle in the Square theater building is now a high-rise, which he deemed the “crime of the century.” La Margarita, with “the rice beans and chicken pots” is now a Capital One Bank building.

“I had a dream in Seattle that [The Red Lion] just turned into a Gap,” May said. “It’s scary.”

The Red Lion, among other small businesses such as bookbook and Murray’s Cheese, has survived the Bleecker Street transformation. It is these existing businesses that #ShopBleecker serves to protect.

Bookbook, which plans to offer a 20 percent discount on paperbacks to support the campaign, has been on Bleecker Street for 33 years. Formerly known as the Biography Bookstore, the owners were asked to relocate in 2009 to make way for a Marc Jacobs store.

Co-owner Charles Mullen attributed the disappearance of small businesses from Bleecker Street partly to landlords’ ability to exponentially increase rents when commercial leases end. He is uncertain of the store’s future, even in the new location. “When you see the end of the line, the end of your lease, you’re basically waiting for the hammer to drop,” he said.

But a bill introduced in the City Council may effectively end that practice. Championed by a local coalition of small businesses and advocacy groups called TakeBackNYC, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act seeks to help tenants with the commercial lease renewal process, including the right to renewal and equal negotiation terms, according to the organization’s website.

Currently awaiting the expiration of his lease is Jamal Alnesr, who has co-owned the Village Music World for more than 30 years. He echoed the complaints of high rent that are abundant along Bleecker Street. He expects his rent to “increase in a big way” and expressed uncertainty about his shop.

“We have lost the attraction and value of what we call Bleecker Street culture,” he added.

Independent businesses along Bleecker Street have been affected by “high-rent blight,” a phenomenon where stores remain vacant for long periods of time due to high rent, to ultimately be occupied by chain stores, according to state Sen. Brad Hoylman’s office. “We cannot let market forces run roughshod over Bleecker Street any longer,” Hoylman said.

Puopolo, however, had a different perspective. He attributed Bleecker Street’s current situation on the real estate market’s tendency to self-correct every 10 or so years. He believes that the decision to keep stores vacant or to increase rent is usually not up to the landlords, but to the lenders who have been affected by the market’s fluctuations.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” Puopolo added. “It’s the nature of where things are going.”

Even a Duane Reade couldn’t make it on Bleecker. “They didn’t have any business, even as a pharmacy,” said Muhammad Akmal, whose New University Pen and Stationery sits next to the boarded-up storefront. He blamed increasingly thinning foot traffic.

“I’m just making my bread and butter, that’s all,” Akmal said. “No savings, nothing. It’s like I’m working for someone else.”

Relief, however, appears imminent. Average commercial asking rents in Manhattan in 2017 declined by 13.4 percent year-over-year, following a trend that began two years ago, according to a quarterly Manhattan Retail MarketView report created by CBRE Group, Inc. Vacant storefronts decreased by 2.5 percent compared to earlier in 2017, but still outweighed the numbers counted in 2016, the report added.

A similar situation can be found in other retail corridors in Manhattan as well. Average asking rents on 14th Street between Eighth and 10th avenues in the Meatpacking District dropped by 19.7 percent in 2017, according to the report. However, the decrease hasn't prevented mom-and-pop shops in the area from disappearing. West 14 Candy Store and the North Village Deli Emporium have shuttered, reportedly to make way for an office tower, the sale of which is being handled by Newmark Knight Frank realty, according to Jeremiah's Vanishing New York.

Despite shutdowns, the Manhattan Retail MarketView report positively portends a “growing willingness among landlords to negotiate rents” and has documented tenants submitting bids lower than asking prices for storefronts in the city.

"The Manhattan retail market is very tenant-favorable right now and likely will be for the foreseeable future," said Nicole LaRusso, director of research and analysis at CBRE. "Also, tenants can secure shorter term leases, which landlords are unwilling to concede in a stronger market."

The inaugural #ShopBleecker campaign aims to occupy some of the vacant storefronts with pop-ups and short-term businesses, working toward an overall goal to “have placed a business or two in the community” by the end of the campaign, said organizer and Greenwich Village resident, Vera Sheps. The permanence of these pop-up shops, however, will depend on the landlords.

In order to help negotiations along, the campaign also aims to kick-start the creation of a small business coalition that would be tasked with advocating for policies — like the Small Business Jobs Survival Act — that would benefit the neighborhood's small business owners.

“Every business feels it’s much needed with the ripple effect that internet shopping has had on brick-and-mortar [shops], but the overall backbone of this project is to get policy in place to reduce vacant storefronts in the long run,” Sheps added.

In keeping with Bleecker Street’s history and aesthetic, the Chamber of Commerce will also consult with Small Business Services, a city governmental entity created to help small business owners assess the community’s commercial needs.

The marketing campaign aims to increase independent shop owners’ revenue through planned events in November, commencing with a Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation-led architectural tour of Bleecker Street. On Nov. 18, the Chamber will host a party starting at noon, which will include speeches from local politicians, in Father Demo Square for shop owners and customers. The day’s festivities will also include children’s activities, fitness classes, raffles and giveaways.

Customers who spend $50 or more at any of the participating businesses - identifiable by a #ShopBleecker poster in the window - throughout the month will be able to exchange the receipts at the Chamber's pop-up office, located at 359 Bleecker St., for raffle tickets that can be applied to one of six prize packages.

Having observed the New York real estate market for more than a decade, Puopolo was confident that Bleecker Street will be “just fine.”

“Retail will always find its bottom, and when it does, everybody will jump,” Puopolo said. And when it does, Bleecker Street will “go back to being the West Village retail corridor as it should be,” he added.

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