Stalled Prospects in Main Street Retail

What’s happening on Main Street? Not much, unless you mean ConEd digging up the Z-bricks for a new high-pressure gas line and scaffolding going up on one building after another.

Meanwhile, storefronts stand empty, the same storefronts that have been empty for years, since the stationery store, bakery, seafood store, chiropractor, shoe-repair, hardware store, and thrift shop moved out, or were moved out, in some cases, years ago. A new agent, the global real estate giant Cushman Wakefield, hung out its shingle all along the Street last September; but no takers so far.

RIRA, the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association, would like to see some action. “Nothing happened last year,” says Anne Kanninen, chair of the RIRA Retail Advisory Committee. We need to set some achievable goals and start working towards them.” (In fact one new lease was signed in 2015, CDM Kids, a daycare and nursery, located at 568 Main Street, apparently awaiting certification before going into full operation.)

The ultimate responsibility lies with the State-appointed Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) Board that governs the Island. Before the January 28 Board meeting, RIOC board member Michael Shinozaki pointed out that a great deal has been done to improve the look of Main Street. The dingy old glass fronts along the arcades are gone, there is new lighting, paintwork and signage, and new Island-shaped benches.

So, if you paint it, will they come? Not so far. Prospective tenants have looked around, some have returned several times, but none have bitten, says Pedram Mahdavi, of Hudson/Related (HR), the holder of the master lease for Main Street stores. What’s stopping tenants flooding in? It’s not the rent: HR believes its expectations are reasonable. It’s not the process: Margie Smith, a Rivercross resident and RIOC Board member, says one of the reasons RIOC went for a master lease was precisely to allow prospective tenants to avoid the bureaucratic hassles of dealing with the State.

So what’s up? How could Main Street support all those stores back then, and why not now? One reason has to be that in the old days stores paid little rent – $9.00 a square foot in some cases – and some of them none at all. Some were years behind when they were forced out. Under the new regime, Hudson/Related is looking for something more like $45.00 a square foot, though that’s presumably negotiable.

RIOC and HR both point to the absence of foot traffic as a major turn-off for businesses wanting to come to the Island. There are 14,000 people here, but many Southtown residents don’t make it as far up as Main Street, and many more whisk straight through on the Octagon Express. Tourists (40,000 in 2013) pour off the Tram to visit Four Freedoms Park, and pour right back on again once they’ve seen it.

Maybe all these visitors and even some residents simply don’t know what’s here. Main Street Sweets and Eats, Island Wines and ­Spirits, the newly renovated and renamed Bread & Butter Deli, a Subway franchise and the Wholesome Factory pizza and grocery, for example, all arrived under the master lease.

So why not tell people all about Main Street? Plans for signage to draw people to Main Street from the Tram, the subway and other Island buildings have been discussed for years, but nothing has come of it. Right now, RIOC chief executive Charlene Indelicato points out, Main Street is such a mess that there’s nowhere to put signs. But what about at the subway and the Tram? Pedram Mahdavi of HR says that they sent proposals to RIOC over a year ago. Why no action? “We couldn’t agree on what sort of signs to have,” was RIOC’s response.

Could innovation be in the cards? Breaking up the big spaces so that smaller stores can move in? Lower rents? More help with building out? Not so far. The RIOC Board’s response to residents’ dissatisfaction is an implicit “Wait and see.”

RIOC seems to believe that the game-changer will be Cornell, whose new Roosevelt Island campus is scheduled to open in 2017. Starting next year, there will be as many as 600 new people on the Island, at least some of the time. Eventually there will be 20,500. But “eventually” is 2043.

To get things moving, RIRA’s Kanninen says she wants Island residents to become more involved in the process. “I would like the Main Street decision makers – Hudson/Related, Cushman Wakefield, the WIRE buildings, and RIOC to have quarterly meetings with the Retail Advisory Committee,” she says. “We would save a lot of time and effort. Being on the same page would avoid a lot of problems.”

Residents may be unhappy, but it’s fair to point out that delay isn’t costing RIOC anything. HR is paying RIOC more than $900,000 a year to lease all the available space. So far most of it is in the loss column. So Hudson/Related has some skin in the game. Cushman Wakefield gets paid only for signed leases, so presumably they’re motivated too: the RIOC board, under its present composition – appointed by the Governor, not elected by residents – apparently not so much.

And the Z-bricks on Main Street? For 40 years they’ve added their unique charm to the Island. But RIOC’s budget allocates $600,000 to replace them with asphalt.

Tags: Retail Alex Marshall

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