In recent months, vendors at the Essex Street Market have been meeting with city officials and developers regarding the eventual move of the historic facility across Delancey Street as part of the Essex Crossing development project. But at least some merchants have a more pressing concern: surviving until that move happens four years from now.
In several interviews during the past couple of weeks, merchants have told us business is noticeably down and, in spite of efforts underway to address the downturn, they are becoming frustrated at the slow pace of progress in jump starting marketing plans and in making basic improvements at the market.
The sentiments are by no means unanimous. We found a wide spectrum of opinions regarding the operations of the Essex Street Market by the NYC Economic Development Corp (EDC). But the concerns, which have been building for more than a year, are not isolated, either. There’s now a merchant association advocating for the interests of the more than 20 small businesses in the 75-year old facility, and more recently an “Essex Street Market Working Group” was created. Regular meetings are attended by merchants, representatives from the EDC, local elected officials, community board members and staff from the LES Business Improvement District.
Rhonda Kave, who has operated Roni-Sue’s Chocolates since 2007, is a leader among the vendors. She said foot traffic began to drop soon after the city announced plans for Essex Crossing in the fall of last year. People who live on the Lower East Side obviously are aware the market is still open but many destination shoppers, she told us, are under the mistaken impression that the current facility has already closed. “Trust me,” she explained, “I do a lot of (food) events (around the city) and people say it over and over. They want to know when the market is reopening.” Kave said there have been many conversations with the EDC about advertising the fact that the market is still open for business. Ideas have been tossed around and strategies discussed, but so far no decisions made. Last year, Kave downsized her stall and opened a production facility on Forsyth Street. The decision was driven, in part, by her need for more space than the market could provide. But another factor was the balky air conditioning system and the city’s decision to bring in large portable cooling units, which made for unsuitable baking conditions.
Another vendor, Jesse Kramer of Brooklyn Taco, agreed that there has been a drop in sales. “The easiest and best solution,” he said, “is to create an environment that (customers) want to be in and I think that is the current issue — creating a comfortable market to attract people who may not have been here before or for (current customers to) make it nicer for them… Everyone wants to leave because it is not comfortable. ” He said better seating, a coat of paint and improved exterior signage would be steps in the right direction. Kramer added that he believes most vendors are excited about moving to the new building, which is scheduled to open in the year 2018. But he warned, “it’s great to talk about three or four years from now, but (many businesses are concerned about) surviving through the transition… (Essex Crossing) will be a huge magnet for this neighborhood… but we need help now.” An owner of one of the newer businesses, ice cream purveyor Luca & Bosco, also expressed concern. Catherine Oddenino noted that there has been a summer upswing, but said, “there are super dead days in the market… it feels in general like a quiet place a lot of the time.” There’s definitely a need, she said, for some group marketing campaigns and for “making decisions more quickly.”
While it is true that some vendors have been hurt by diminished foot traffic, others are actually seeing an uptick in business. Luis Rodriguez, owner of Luis Meat Market since 1998, said he has more customers than he did a few years ago. He believes that new residents in the neighborhood have found the market and are patronizing his shop. Rodriguez, who has witnessed a resurgence in the market after years of decline, also believes the facility is better run than in the past. Across the way, Sobeida De La Cruz of Vida Fruit Market also reported higher sales. Fifteen years after taking over the business from her father, she said business is increasingly brisk. The same goes for New Star Fish Market, one of the oldest businesses in the market. Eric Suh, who joined his dad fulltime in the past year, and is now a regular presence behind the counter, said more people are passing through, and discovering the market’s unique offerings.
We contacted the Economic Development Corp. for its perspective on what’s happening. A spokesperson said it’s a mixed bag for merchants; some have experienced drops in business, while others have not. The agency, the spokesperson said, is working with the merchant association, on marketing strategies and possible facility improvements. In the spring, the EDC hired a consulting firm, Market Ventures, to advise the city regarding operations at the new market. At the request of City Council member Margaret Chin, the consultant is also advising the merchant association about how to best build its organization in the coming years.
This year, the Lower East Side BID has stepped up its support for the vendors. In February, it held an evening tasting event that drew a large crowd. Asked how he sees his organization’s role, Tim Laughlin, the BID’s executive director, said, “we are working with market vendors, EDC and relevant city agencies to continue our support and promotion of the market as a dynamic neighborhood anchor and central component of our local economy both now and in the future as a new facility comes online.”
The new market is being built by the Essex Crossing developers, but it will be turned over to the city once completed. The facility, which will double in size, will continue to be overseen by the city. Asked whether the EDC would continue to run it on a day-to-day basis, the spokesperson did not reply directly but said Market Ventures is helping to guide the city as well as various stakeholders through a “deliberate and thoughtful process” to determine future operational and management issues.
This week, there were some signs of progress. Rhonda Kave reported that the EDC had signed off on a plan to add permanent signage on the exterior of the 1940 market building, offering potential shoppers information about all of the vendors.