Here’s an update on the great chain store brouhaha on Grand Street. A week ago, residents of the sprawling Seward Park Cooperative began circulating an online petition to stop their board from signing leases with 7-Eleven and a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee. Tonight, board members will meet to discuss the situation, which (in typical fashion) has divided the shareholders of the large housing complex east of Essex Street.
Frank Durant, Seward Park’s general manager, declined to comment until the board makes up its mind. Eric Mandelbaum, the president of the board, has not responded to an interview request. A new board member, John Ryan, told us in a statement he is “not a fan of having chain stores in our commercial spaces” but since the co-op is “potentially writing off several hundred thousand dollars annually from non-paying commercial tenants” all options (including the possibility of leasing to chain outlets) needed to be considered.
In the past week, shareholder Auguste Olson’s petition has garnered 539 signatures (Seward Park has more than 1700 apartments; not all of those who have signed live in the co-op). She has also assembled a group of like-minded shareholders who have begun informal conversations with small businesses who might have interest in taking the retail spaces.
In an interview last week, Olson said her chief concern is “bringing stores to Grand Street that add value to the neighborhood.” 24-hour stores offering unhealthy food options, she said, are inconsistent with the “ethics, the family values that the co-op is based on.” Olson said she understands the importance of attracting tenants who can pay their rents; “I just think they chose the wrong stores,” she explained.
A spirited conversation has erupted on neighborhood message boards in the past few days. Some residents have argued that the chains would offer services people in the neighborhood want and provide the co-op with much needed revenue. Others have suggested that pleas for small “mom-and-pop” stores (code in their eyes for gentrification) are misguided in a neighborhood that is becoming more affluent but is still predominantly middle and low income.
A board member who requested anonymity confirmed the basic details of the 7-Eleven and Dunkin’ Donuts offers, saying that the outcry from shareholders came as a surprise. The space being eyed by 7-Eleven is currently occupied by the Grand Spa. The co-op is in a “collections phase” with the business for unpaid rent. The Dunkin’ Donuts would take over the space recently vacated by Roots & Vines, a coffee shop run by a Seward Park resident. Upon closing the business, owner Natalie Krodel explained to The Lo-Down that she simply wasn’t making it financially after almost nine years in business.
The co-op’s retail woes mirror those faced by other landlords on the Lower East Side. The Seward Park board recently voted in support of the LES Business Improvement District’s proposed expansion beyond its Orchard Street core area. Today, BID Executive Director Bob Zuckerman pointed out that chains have not been a major factor below Houston Street up until now. The BID has not taken an official position on the presence of chain stores on the Lower East Side. It has, however, opposed “big box” chains from opening in the neighborhood.
There’s a broader context surrounding the debate about the chains on Grand Street. The city is inching closer to redeveloping the underutilized parcels across the street from the cooperative as a mixed use (residential and retail) complex. While the Seward Park Project is still several years away from becoming reality, major developers are already assembling proposals not only for the city owned sites, but surrounding properties as well. A person familiar with the board room conversations acknowledged that the co-op has been approached by developers but said there is no consensus on the board about how to proceed.
This afternoon, we checked in with a Grand Street business owner, who’s seen it all in the past 40 years. John DeBlasio of Seward Park Liquors (on the Lower East Side since 1973) called the new development a “game changer” which is already having an impact. From a personal perspective, DeBlasio (who grew up in the neighborhood) said he’s concerned a 7-Eleven would devastate his lotto sales, which make up a significant portion of the liquor store’s profits. In a more general sense, DeBlasio said he’s seen numerous independent businesses come and go in the retail strip stretching from Essex to Clinton streets. “I hate to say it but the independents just aren’t profitable enough to pay the rent,” he said. DeBlasio speculated that at least one chain store is inevitable.
Grand Street is obviously not alone in the battle against corporate retail. Earlier today, EV Grieve posted news of a petition drive aimed at barring chain stores in the East Village. Meanwhile, big chains are leaving little doubt about their intentions in Manhattan, as this week’s New York Magazine explains. In the story, sub-titled, “How 7-Eleven plans to put the bodega out of business,” we learn that the corporate giant plans to open 100 retail locations in the city by 2017.