Thursday, March 6, 2014

Austin Street Retail District At Risk

The Forest Hills community is at risk. Learn more by visiting Michael Perlman's column in the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger:

71-53 Austin St received a Stop Work Order by the NYC Dept of Buildings: One of the signs of how select property owners are undermining the integrity of the historic retail district

Austin Street, long known for its independently owned boutiques, novelty shops and culturally inspired restaurants, may soon be on the verge of becoming “medical center row,” as several businesses are slated to expand from the thoroughfare’s west section eastward.

Over the past decade, the retail district has been marked by the closure of many small businesses, including Daniella Boutique, Santa Fe Steakhouse, Stoa Jewelry, Buster Brown Shoes, Homestead Gourmet Shop, and Art World. Pasta Del Giorno at 70-49 Austin Street, which opened in 1989 and offered fine Italian dining, closed in mid-February.

The closed shops made way for large corporations, including banks, chain pharmacies, clothing shops, and cell phone stores, to move in after landlords imposed hefty rent increases upon some longtime tenants.

“I am very upset so many boutiques have closed, such as Lulu’s, Austin Jeans, and Piccolo Mondo,” said Elias Kalogiros, who co-owns Austin Street's Exo CafĂ©. “There used to be a nice combination of middle to high-end shops, but the neighborhood is changing based on what landlords are asking. Some rents on Austin Street are even higher than Manhattan, so we can expect more medical facilities, banks, and office buildings.”

Rumor has it that UA Brandon Cinemas at 70-20 Austin Street will close shortly for a medical business. A February job filing with the Department of Buildings states an existing legal use for a theater and a proposed use for an “ambulatory diagnostic” establishment.

Likewise, nearby shop Second Time Around also closed recently, and a permit issued last month calls for “construction of a new urgent care office including limited demolition.”

“This is supposed to be a shopping area and should stay like this,” said Sal Wahd, manager of Leather Boutique.

In summer 2013, the community learned that a new glass building was proposed for 71-53 Austin Street, and would be home to an H&M clothing store. But banners posted last October instead read “Coming Soon – ProHealth Urgent Care.”

“It is sad enough that so many stores are closing due to harsh economic times, but having more medical facilities won’t do anything for Forest Hills,” said Lisa Jaume of Lady Love Boutique at 71-63 Austin Street. “A glass building will take away from the charm of Austin Street, and a vacant lot attracting vandalism is unwelcome in such a prestigious neighborhood.”

Her concerns have become a reality, as the property is now covered in graffiti and trash collects behind the construction fence.

“This is not a medical street,” said Natasha Nirmal, owner of Urban Creations Fashion Boutique at 71-54 Austin Street. “More shops and restaurants would be beneficial for the entire street, and may help businesses that are suffering. I hope the medical facilities won’t affect our retail parking.”

Commenters on Edge of The City: A Forest Hills Blog have suggested a make-your-own salad take-out place, an independent coffee house, an upscale diner, and a good, reasonably priced Chinese restaurant.

“Before a medical center opens on our main shopping strip, how about we first get some of the restaurant options that so many other thriving neighborhoods in New York City already have for years?” asked Drake Michell, webmaster for the site.

“It concerns me that we will have an abundance of urgent care facilities in a four-block radius,” added Leslie Brown, president of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce. “I will be delving into some concerns of small businesses and possibly scheduling a meeting.”

Forest Hills co-op owner Ron Daniel, who is also a licensed real estate salesperson with Sotheby's International Realty NYC, offered his take on the situation.

“Unfortunately, there is no Austin Street BID to work with business owners, landlords, the community, and Community Board 6 to incentivize and spur growth of new retail and restaurant operators,” he said. “These groups must devise a comprehensive plan to create a cohesive atmosphere for this high foot traffic street. Business operators need to begin by banding together because the landlords certainly are not.”

If you are a concerned Forest Hills resident or business owner and care about the future of your community, please email Rego-Forest Preservation Council at 

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