Two Restaurant Owners Keep Wary Eye on Essex Market Redevelopment Prospects

New Roma Pizza's new awning, in a building with an uncertain future.

For many business owners, the slow creep of the city’s bureaucracy can be a source of intense frustration. But for Miguel Cortezar, owner and operator of New Roma Pizza on the corner of Delancey and Essex streets, it may be a lifeline. His restaurant is located in the city-owned Essex Street Market building, a structure that could be demolished as part of the city’s Seward Park Redevelopment Plan, which won Community Board 3 approval in May.

Whatever the city’s intentions, the building’s fate, as well as that of three neighboring Essex Street Market buildings that are scarcely occupied, remains uncertain. Although much will remain unknown until proposals from developers are solicited next year, the increasingly solid possibility of demolition looms large over New Roma’s future.

“This is New York; you’ve got to take it day by day,” said Cortezar, a NYC native who has operated the pizzeria for more than a decade. Though he recognizes the building’s demolition would likely signal an end to his business, he knows that the pace of city projects can be sluggish, if they actually happen at all. “Remember when the mayor advocated for the West Side Stadium?” he reflected. “See what happened? He might take days; he might take years.”

If the city’s preferred plan materializes, a new Essex Street Market could go up in the next few years on the south side of Delancey Street.  The current market would then be redeveloped.  Longtime merchants, however, have seen plans come and go.  Michael Bloomberg is just the latest mayor to consider “repurposing” the Market building sites, and business owners remain skeptical the most recent proposal will come to fruition, even as it threatens their livelihood.

Spiros Nakos, who owns the Olympic Diner, located in the nearly empty Market building across the street from New Roma, says he’s “heard things” about the new plans for the buildings almost since he opened in 1980. “I don’t believe anything is going to happen for a few years,” he said. “They don’t do nothing over here.”

Still, the Seward Park plan has placed pressure on his restaurant. Despite his extended tenure in the building, Nakos has been unable to acquire a long-term lease for the space. Kyle Sklerov, a spokesperson for the New York City Economic Development Corporation (which operates the market buildings) confirmed the diner is on a “month-to-month” lease.  Nakos said it’s not easy operating in a building that’s mostly abandoned. He has had problems with rodents and less than attentive building maintenance. Once, he claims, he spoke with a city official about a leak in his ceiling, and was told to “get an umbrella.” Last November, a newspaper delivery truck driving along Delancey crashed into his storefront. Nakos said he paid for the repairs to the building’s facade himself.

The Olympia Diner has occupied an Essex Street Market building since 1980, but holds no long-term lease.

Despite the speculation about his building’s eventual demolition, Cortezar, who does have a long-term lease, began a yearlong renovation in June 2011, financing the project himself with help from his family. New Roma Pizza re-opened a few weeks ago, boasting several cosmetic changes, a new central air conditioning system and a new dining area on the second floor.

Cortezar went through with the costly renovations even though he knew the restaurant’s lifespan could be relatively short. Last year, he attended a Community Board 3 committee meeting in which potential plans for the building were discussed, but he forged ahead anyway. “If they do it, they’re going to start with that building first,” he said, pointing towards Nakos’ diner. “So we’ll see what happens.” He expects the process will move so incrementally that his investment will pay off; he’s got a lot riding on this theory. “You can’t be afraid,” he said. “When they actually start doing something, then it’s time to worry.”

 

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