A study released yesterday by the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council shows small businesses on the Lower East Side are struggling and warns the neighborhood itself could be in danger of becoming “an historical footnote.” The survey, conducted by Weber Associates, was largely based on interviews with 140 merchants along Orchard and Delancey Streets and 165 shoppers. At a press conference held at the restaurant “Broadway East,” Council President Victor Papa said there’s an urgent need to curb the “displacement of small businesses and low-income residents” struggling to survive gentrification, competition from national discount stores, high rents and the proliferation of bars and clubs.While the current economic downturn has hit local businesses hard, their troubles began long before the recession began.
Study author Robert Weber noted the LES is still a neighborhood “that mixes the old with the new.” But illustrating the breathtaking transformation in the past decade, he said, on just one block of Orchard (between Houston and Stanton), only two of 22 businesses remained from the year 2000. As the neighborhood morphs from a legendary shopping district to a nightlife destination, many longtime business owners reported a startling drop in daytime foot traffic. Weber said new business owners, many of whom were lured to the LES by less expensive rents, seem dismayed that the neighborhood is not more lively during the day. Some of those businesses have already shut down or moved to other parts of the city.
Among the businesses surveyed: Altman Luggage, a fixture on Orchard Street since 1920. Dan Altman said the neighborhood had lost its uniqueness. He told surveyors that the younger generation in family-run businesses are just not that interested in retail. He also said the lure of selling their buildings to developers at a large profit is powerful — and that had accelerated the changeover from small stores to bars, restaurants and luxury apartments.
Many longtime shops are now more reliant on online sales and support from loyal customers who moved from the LES years ago but continue to come back to patronize their favorite stores. For this reason, these owners are concerned about the dearth of parking spaces and congestion.
The study recommends that stores consider staying open later, when foot traffic picks up, and that businesses make window shopping and strolling through the neighborhood more appealing. Victor Papa acknowledged that the old and new Lower East Side must co-exist. The study suggests maintaining a “retail mix of discount apparel, moderately priced clothes and high end fashion” to appeal to consumers of varying economic means.
There were many other recommendations, including the possibility of tax credits for landlords that reduce retail rents, a campaign to encourage residents to buy locally and better transportation to the LES from the West Side. Roberto Ragone of the LES Business Improvement District, said his group is working on marketing strategies that capitalize on the neighborhood’s historic status as the “bargain district” but also appeal to younger shoppers in search of hip and trendy shopping options. He also said the BID would embrace the study’s recommendation to stage more special evening shopping events, in which stores stay open later and offer discounts.
Ragone and Papa said they would present the findings of the study in the community, to start a discussion about concrete steps that can be taken to improve the fortunes of LES merchants. We’ll be following their progress, as they settle on a strategy.
More information on the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council here.
More information on the LES Business Improvement District here.