January 30, 2023



Buck Ennis
Many outer-borough business districts are bouncing back quickly post-pandemic as residents have a new appreciation for playing, dining and doing business close to home

By Cara Eisenpress
In the western part of Park Slope, Brooklyn, several long blocks from Prospect Park, a lot of the public space is meant for children. But during the summer, the local business group added picnic tables and benches to the plaza on Fourth Street, and soon adults were bringing their lunches from local spots or setting up with laptops and coffee for a work-from-home afternoon.
“There’s less going to Manhattan, and that’s all supporting our commercial corridor,” said Joanna Tallantire, executive director of the Park Slope Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District.
Similarly, in Morris Park, residents stick around the neighborhood even on weekends, working out at the Untamed Studio gym. They are buying smoothies from Healthy Fresh, which renovated its space not long after opening, and hiring local tax preparers and lawyers—at least three have opened on the avenue in the past two years.
More than two years of altered patterns have upended how New Yorkers, visitors and commuters use their city. As some residents work from or near their homes, and others commute to Manhattan but less frequently, their presence—and wallets—in the areas near where they live has bolstered the vitality of outer-borough neighborhoods in the form of foot traffic, business patronage and lunch orders. At the same time, small-business owners once desperate to make it through 2020 have enhanced their marketing, online presence and customer relationships to become essential to these communities, developing connections with nearby merchants and planning corridor-wide events.
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Mayor Eric Adams acknowledged the trend on Wednesday at a Crain’s event. “It’s clearly the outer boroughs” that are drawing new business creation, he said. “Covid has revealed that people have discovered that it’s ok to build these new business hubs outside of Manhattan.”
The number of private establishments—excluding household employers—rose in all boroughs outside Manhattan in the two Covid-era years between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the same period in 2021. (Household employment dropped a great deal in this period, according to a similar analysis by the New York City comptroller, so excluding categories such as caretakers and home cleaners paints a clearer picture of where business growth is occurring in retail, hospitality, professions and the arts.) While those establishments in Manhattan shrank by just a tiny fraction of a percent during that period, in Brooklyn the number of businesses increased by 7%. In the Bronx, it was 5%, and both Queens and Staten Island saw increases of nearly 4%. The changes elongate a 25-year trend in which Manhattan’s share of city establishments has shrunk every year.
To see how this shift has played out citywide, Crain’s looked at four outer-borough districts that exemplify the move of entrepreneurial energy from Manhattan out, although they are quite different from one another:
• Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where a well-heeled bunch of residents opened their wallets for favorite restaurants and activities;
• Tompkins and Lewis avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where the pioneering Open Streets program beckoned visitors, who in turn supported businesses that drew out more locals;
• Morris Park Avenue in the Bronx, whose inclusion of the Montefiore Medical Center makes it an employment center in the borough that can sustain a bona-fide “main street”;
• The square blocks around Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens, where vacant storefronts get rented immediately by small businesses eager to serve an out-and-about neighborhood that’s like a city in its own right.
Embedded in the highly localized mini booms—which continue a pre-2020 trend—lies a question bigger than the success of any one small business or the vacancy rate in any particular corridor: How should the city’s commercial infrastructure serve its residents, workers and visitors as its recovery progresses and its leaders set a course for growth?
Of course, beneath the enthusiasm of recovery and hidden in the net gains are thousands of business closures. While these four districts are models in many ways, some Manhattan neighborhoods are doing well, while many outer-borough areas are not seeing an increase in business formation or expansion.
“Areas of East and Southeast Brooklyn continue to struggle mightily,” said Randy Peers, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “These areas were hurting before the pandemic and things have not gotten better.”
In Flushing, sidewalks on the blocks surrounding the 7 train stop at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue are packed, as residents and regional visitors get back to the shopping, dining and personal care routines that have allowed hordes of new businesses to reopen on the heels of a wave of Covid-related closures.
“I was impressed by how fast we bounced back as a community,” said Dian Yu, executive director of the Downtown Flushing Transit Hub Business Improvement District. The resurgence is due to regional visitors and the everyday routines that bring families out to spend on dim sum, groceries for the week and various beauty treatments, he said. Since Covid, nearly a half-dozen new bubble tea spots have joined several already in the neighborhood. There, the neighborhood’s young people now sip drinks and socialize. In addition, steady real estate deals keep an array of lawyers’ and accountants’ storefront offices in business.
That locals are staying put near their homes is clear in the numbers. Subway ridership has yet to recover beyond 70% of its pre-2020 level. Foot traffic on main drags such as Times Square, or even relative comeback leaders like the Flatiron-NoMad neighborhood, is only about 80% as busy as before. About half of office workers are at their desks in Manhattan on any given day, according to the latest Partnership for New York City survey.
Buck Ennis
The corner of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens.
By contrast, Downtown Brooklyn has seen a steady rise in the number of companies in the area in the past decade, with more midsize design and professional firms signing leases by the month. That means that even for those Brooklyn professionals who are back to work, commutes may be shorter, and time spent near home is still copious.
Fifth Avenue in Park Slope is quieter than it is in Flushing, but still, the steady stream of families making their way up and down has led to a successful first year on the strip for Rolando Balboa’s Brooklyn Fencing Center.
“I don’t have to do advertising,” he said. “People are just coming.”
So many people walk by that the store itself serves as the only outreach he needs, he said, and he has enough momentum that he is planning to expand to Downtown Brooklyn. Balboa had been in operation for more than a decade in other parts of Brooklyn, but his arrival on Fifth Avenue in May 2021 was part of a surge in openings in the area that brought the retail vacancy rate down from 15% to 4%. That surge included at least one company that crossed the East River from Chelsea: Midoriya, a Japanese grocery store. The influx to Fifth Avenue reverses a slight depression of the late 2010s, when some local retailers were struggling to make ends meet because of the growing popularity of e-commerce.
All told, the Fifth Avenue BID counts 55 lost businesses between March 2020 and early September of this year, said Tallantire, the executive director. But there have been 86 openings, and an additional seven businesses are under construction. About half of the new spots are not eateries, Tallantire said, including services and activities such as fencing, chess and science, reflecting a larger shift. Manhattan had a net decline of 244 private establishments in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector; Brooklyn gained 57, according to the city comptroller.
Eateries had a high turnover before Covid-19, but only Manhattan lost net private establishments in the accommodation and food services sector, the comptroller’s data showed.
Twenty blocks north and slightly east of the Fifth Avenue boom, restaurants are reviving the empty juncture of Sixth, Flatbush and St. Marks avenues. That’s where the pandemic-era fried chicken pop-up Pecking House opened its first brick-and-mortar shop in early September. Pecking House came out of co-founder Eric Huang’s effort to help a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Queens stay in business. The Eleven Madison Park-trained chef began offering fried chicken with sides made from both Southern American and Taiwanese flavors for delivery in the spring of 2020. Quickly, orders piled in, and a 10,000-person waiting list amassed. Because Huang and co-founder Maya Ferrante were doing all their own sales and delivery, they ended up with access to prize location data.
“We were able to see that we were doing the majority of our delivery in Brooklyn—Prospect Heights, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn Heights—and it just made sense to us,” Ferrante said. The restaurant no longer delivers. It didn’t hurt that they live walking distance from the space, the co-founders said, or that a build-out would be much less expensive in Brooklyn than Manhattan.
On Sept. 9 the co-founders peeled back the paper that had covered the large windows since the previous restaurant shuttered in 2019. Service begins at 5 p.m. On each of the first four days they were open, lines began forming around 4:30 p.m., they said. They found that settling into the neighborhood and helping drive its comeback gave them renewed focus and energy.
“The food is the best it’s ever been,” Huang said.
In April 2020 the Tompkins Avenue Merchant Association launched its Open Streets program. Restaurants, clothing stores and coffee shops on the commercial strip gathered with entertainers and residents for what became a block party that attracted New Yorkers from around the five boroughs. Close to 2,500 participants come on a given Open Streets day, said Blondel Pinnock, president and CEO of Bed-Stuy Restoration Plaza, which fosters economic development in the area.
The strip, which includes more than two dozen small businesses, is one of several that are thriving in Bed-Stuy, where vacancy rates have dropped by as much as 10% in certain commercial corridors, said Oma Holloway, chief operating officer of the Bridge Street Development Corporation in Bed-Stuy.
Buck Ennis
Vacancy rates have dropped by as much as 10% in certain commercial corridors of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
On Tompkins Avenue alone in recent months, the bar Oddly Enough quickly took over the space of restaurant Eugene & Co. when it closed; longtime restaurateur Myriam Nicolas expanded her café Brooklyn Brown Butter to a second location, where she sells ice cream; and Greedi Vegan began selling meat-free comfort food. At the southern end of the corridor, by Fulton, supermarket Met Fresh opened over the summer. Another standby, Peaches Hothouse, had enough momentum on Tompkins to open a second location in Downtown Brooklyn. Around Bed-Stuy, the list of entertainment and arts venues includes the Billie Holiday Theatre and the recently opened arts space the Laundromat Project.
“What I am seeing is that community-based organizations are doing partnerships and collaborations to enhance the business corridors,” Pinnock said.
The city added two new official business improvement districts earlier this year, bringing the total to 75. But that doesn’t count the unofficial merchants organizations that have worked hand in hand with businesses in the past two years to help them build a social media presence, pilot city programs such as e-scooter rentals, or apply for state and federal relief funds. Nearly all the brick-and-mortar businesses in the Bronx that come to the Lehman College Small Business Development Center have questions about how to bolster their e-commerce, with the goal of keeping revenue high enough to afford rent, interim director Jackeline Rosero said.
Other efforts are on the surface.
In Morris Park, Camelia Tepelus, executive director of the Morris Park Business Improvement, is cleaning 126 tree pits and installing more than 50 plantings.
“This is Park Avenue level,” she said. “I’m trying to infuse a new vibe.”
On a recent weekend, Bridge Street Development Corporation’s Holloway was trying to figure out what to do after dinner at a Haitian restaurant in Bed-Stuy, when she and her friends remembered that Therapy Wine Bar on Malcolm X Boulevard stays open late for desserts, cocktails and coffee. They strolled there through the neighborhood.
“You start seeing that it’s like how you would feel in Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn,” Holloway said. “You can eat, be entertained and shop. From Covid, we learned you can find everything on your own block.”
Near to Pecking House in Park Slope, business presence seems to have a cyclical effect, with at least four more eateries that will open or reopen in the coming months.
“It’s been a little dead,” Ferrante said. “We’re excited to be part of it coming back.”
Likewise, Morris Park Avenue’s population has continued to patronize services close to home, even once residents went back to work in person.
“On the weekends there used to be low foot traffic,” Tepelus said. Now, people stick around.
Back in Bed-Stuy, the boost from the Open Streets program and other investments in marketing have increased the diversity of offerings in the neighborhood, turning Tompkins Avenue and other Bed-Stuy strips from spots to check out occasionally to vibrant ecosystems for both residents and visitors, in a way that goes beyond economics.
One new Bed-Stuy storefront is The Laundromat Project, an arts organization that had operated in the neighborhood for years before signing a lease in 2020 and opening its doors this past summer. Rather than a shop or a restaurant, this is a community place. “We’re thinking of it as a space that can hold joy, gathering and togetherness,” said Ayesha Williams, its executive director. Locals packed into its open house for a project that highlighted bodega owners and food from nearby eateries, including Brooklyn Tea. “Folks were here,” said Williams, who described how an ecosystem of business owners and community members supported each other, in the process building up the viability of the community.
“The driver for the commercial corridors isn’t just to purchase goods,” said Matthew Clarke, executive director of Design Trust for Public Space, which works to improve public areas in the city, said “The driver for the commercial corridors isn’t just to purchase goods. It’s an experiential quality, to have a sense of culture and connection to neighborhoods.”
Buck Ennis
Cafés like The Narativ House on Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn are popular lunchtime spots for residents working remotely.
Although Labor Day this year seemed to be, at last, a mark in the city’s push for a return to the office, Tompkins Avenue restaurants and cafés continued to be well-populated around lunchtime on a Tuesday, with groups gathered for lunch and individuals with laptops seeking Wi-Fi and companionship.
In an analysis by the city comptroller, an increase in back-to-work does not appear to jeopardize retail and recreation activity outside Manhattan. For every one percentage-point increase in effective office occupancy in the New York metropolitan area, there is a related 0.42 percentage- point increase in visits to workplaces and a 0.28 percentage-point increase in visits to retail and recreation establishments. Even in outer parts of the metropolitan area, such as the suburbs, that same increase in office occupancy only diminishes activity by about 0.1 of a percentage point.
That people will still be out and about in their neighborhoods whenever they can squares with Clarke’s view that the outer-borough commercial strips can hang onto their hard-won vitality—bringing both convenience and connection to residents.
“People are hungry for this when work is atomized,” he said.
Related stories from Crain’s
Businesses don’t need a Manhattan address any more
Tiny companies thwart the pandemic closure trend
The evolving inflation playbook for New York business
Published on September 26, 2022
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