Anne Saxelby says “enough is enough.” After years of frustration dealing with New York City’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC), operator of the Essex Street Market, she has run out of patience. Saxelby, head of the vendor association, told The Lo-Down recently “The EDC continues to demonstrate ineptitude in managing this market… They are masters of inaction and bumbling. We want alternative management now, if it’s not already too late.”
Six months ago, the historic market’s vendors went before Community Board 3’s land use committee, pleading with the city to step aside. They said the EDC had done too little to combat a sharp drop in foot traffic, leading to the closure of three businesses. At the time, city officials said they could not relinquish control, at least not in a short time frame. Instead, the EDC pledged to take immediate, interim steps to resuscitate the market.
But according to Saxelby, co-owner of Saxelby Cheesmongers, promises made during that March 10 meeting have gone unfulfilled. Back then, EDC Executive Vice President Ben Branham (no longer with the agency) outlined what he called “some very robust proposals to empower the vendors.” They included hiring a part-time employee to work with the merchants, to outsource marketing to the LES Business Improvement District and to move quickly to find new tenants for four empty stalls. While there have been numerous conversations and emails in the months that followed, Saxelby told us, all of these projects remain mired in bureaucratic red tape. “The Essex Street Market needs to be given the attention it deserves,” she said. “The EDC doesn’t have the bandwidth. They don’t have the expertise.”
In their defense, officials with the Economic Development Corp. say they’ve been working with the vendors to establish a non-profit organization, a necessary step before staff can be hired and funding accepted. The city paid for legal counsel to help set up the not-for-profit entity. A job description, they added, was drafted in July and the EDC, vendor association and Lower East Side BID are working on finalizing contracts. A spokesman, Chris Carroll, explained, “We’re looking forward to continuing to finalize this agreement and see a fully incorporated and entirely independent tenant association take shape.”
As for the marketing agreement, BID Executive Director Tim Laughlin said, “We are actively working to finalize a framework for strengthening our partnership in support of both individual vendors and the market as a whole; progress on executing an agreement with a new leadership team at EDC has been positive and forward moving… We are confident this framework will be formalized in the immediate future.” Laughlin said the BID’s role will be to take a fresh look at the market’s advertising strategy, evaluate possible facility improvements and programming to drive new foot traffic.
In the past couple of weeks, Puebla Mexican Food (a longtime East Village business) finally began operating out of a stall vacated by Brooklyn Taco in February. Agreements to fill the remaining three vacant spaces are expected in the next few weeks, we’re told. When we asked why the process is taking so long, Carroll responded, “The EDC team works diligently to bring qualified and diverse businesses to the market as quickly as possible.” Part of the challenge, officials say, is in finding tenants that will complement the existing market community. At the same time, they argue, delays are often caused by a number of factors, including stall build-out requirements, legal issues, insurance, etc., which frequently have nothing to do with the EDC.
Over the summer, the city, Lower East Side BID and the vendors poured a lot of energy into a month-long celebration of the Essex Street Market’s 75th anniversary. It culminated in a street fair that drew a large crowd and offered merchants a one-day infusion of customers and cash.
But since that time, momentum has stalled. As we reported earlier this month, ice cream purveyor Luca & Bosco shut down a stall (really a glorified cart) located near the north-end entrance. Owner Catherine Oddenino told us she had asked for permission to go seasonal, since so few people are clamoring for ice cream in the winter months. The request was rejected. “We love the community,” she explained, “but in the end it just didn’t make sense to pay someone to sit there all winter and sell no ice cream. The market is pretty dead a lot of the time.” Luca & Bosco will now focus on catering while searching for a new retail space.
Rhonda Kave of Roni Sue’s Chocolates had also planned to give up her stall, which has been operating at a loss. In a recent email exchange, Kave said she found a vendor to take it over, which had previously been an allowed practice. But she said EDC managers vetoed the prospective tenant, meaning Kave could not be reimbursed for any of the improvements she made to the stall. Given the city’s stance, she’s looking at other options beyond simply shuttering (Kave also has a store and production facility on Forsyth Street).
Saxelby sees these two examples as proof of the EDC’s inflexibility and its constantly shifting policies. We asked the city for its perspective. “In our mission driven management of the market,” Carroll said, “we work to create an equitable and diverse market community where vendors complement one another to help the entire market thrive. Seasonal arrangements would make this goal extremely difficult.” As for the dilemma facing Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, EDC officials contend that vendors were never allowed to identify new tenants to take their spots. Such a practice, they maintain, would undermine the city’s ability to curate the market.
The current market is, of course, doomed. In 2018, the vendors will be moving across Delancey Street to a new facility in Essex Crossing, the large development project now under construction. In interviews, the developers have described the Essex Street Market as the heart of their commercial strategy and a gateway to the Market Line, a food-focused retail complex stretching along Delancey. The Market Line will be run by the development team, while the city will continue to oversee the Essex Market.
“If I were the developers,” Saxelby told us, “I would be very worried. If the EDC runs the new market the way they’re running the old place, there’s reason for a lot of concern.”
Ted Spitzer of the consulting firm Market Ventures has been advising the city about the best management model for the new facility. The vendors are pushing for a framework that Spitzer has recommended for numerous big city markets — management by a nimble, locally based non-profit organization. But what does he think should happen on the Lower East Side? That’s a good question. Market Ventures was awarded a contract in the spring of 2014 to come up with a business plan, among other tasks. “No one has seen the report,” said Saxelby. “Where is it?”
City officials say Market Ventures detailed a variety of options for management of the new facility, but that no report has been prepared. They suggested that Spitzer was not charged with making a specific recommendation to the city and said there is no timetable for deciding how the new Essex Street Market will be run. The RFP (Request for Proposals) for “market consulting services” was not publicly released, but The Lo-Down obtained it through a Freedom of Information Law request. In a section titled, “Scope of Work,” the consultant is tasked with detailing a “market management structure,” developing a “long-term leasing strategy” and developing a detailed transition plan” from the old market to the new facility.
In a followup with the EDC, we were told that Spitzer is still working with city planners as well as the vendor association. Officials say they will, together with Market Ventures, identify a management model when a move-in date approaches. But they insist that has not yet happened.
It should be noted that the Economic Development Corp. got a new president this past summer. Mayor de Blasio appointed Maria Torres-Springer, formerly head of the NYC Department of Small Business Services, to the top post. According to meeting minutes, the EDC board on August 5 approved the re-allocation of $5 million, which was paid to the city by the Essex Crossing developers to set up an “Essex Street Market Incubator Program.” The fund will now be used for a “Market Assistance Program” benefiting all of the city’s public markets. There’s now speculation that Torres-Springer is pushing her organization to re-think the way it manages the city’s entire market portfolio. This could be behind the EDC’s reluctance to explain its plan for the new Essex Street Market.
In the meantime, however, local elected officials are re-focusing on the current market’s woes. In the past year, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin have spoken up on behalf of the vendors. The issue will also go back before Community Board 3 next month. They will all be getting an earful from Anne Saxelby.