By Meredith Hoffman
HELL'S KITCHEN — The High Line is turning a desolate strip of Manhattan's far West side into a magnetic Manhattan neighborhood, according to a hopeful bunch of business owners on the stretch.
Thomas and Ellen Wolfe opened their new restaurant, the Tenth Rail, in February, because they said they had faith that the Tenth Avenue space just three blocks from the High Line was set to become a booming new neighborhood.
"To be (among) the first ones here is great," Ellen said while working at her 33rd Street bar and restaurant. "When we first opened in February it was like a ghost town, now we see lots of foot traffic."
"My husband could see it was a prime neighborhood, changes are going on," she added. "A few restaurant owners have come in and said they wished they had gotten this spot."
The Tenth Rail isn't the only local business who says they have reaped the benefits of the High Line's opening.
The strip for years has been filled wth tire repair shops, warehouses, and offices.
But in recent years developers have taken interest in the location. The Ohm Apartments have been built, and other high rises and a new subway stop are on the way, although debate remains on how soon real change will occur.
"This area is going to become a new neighborhood in the next two to four years," Thomas Wolfe said, boasting that TV presenter Keith Olbermann had moved into an office next door for his new show that began Monday.
Wolfe said Olbermann called in an order recently, and told him that "he chose this over the Martha Stewart building because he likes this area better."
New businesses have also sprung up by the Coach factory on 34th Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues in recent months, said Wolfe.
"We're on the border of Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea. It's much better than down on 27th and 28th Street where I used to work, that area's saturated." Wolfe said his business currently gets area employees for its happy-hour and lunch, and that weekends see an upsurge in tourists visiting the High Line.
However, the area's new intrigue comes at a cost, said Balke Balkera, an 11-year employee with Arenson Prop Center on Tenth Avenue and 32nd Street.
"A lot of companies have already moved out because they can't afford to rent here, rent has gone up so much," said Balkera, who watched the more upscale restaurant 404 NYC replace a long-time cafeteria.
"Our rent will certainly go up with next year's lease," he said. "And rent is the most important factor."
Even for 404 NYC, a restaurant and bakery at 33rd near Tenth Avenue, which is part of the Tour de France culinary group along with Sushi Samba, managers said getting enough business was initially a challenge.
"We're new so it took a while to get the word out," admitted barista Kathy Ramsarran, who was with the eatery when it opened in December.
She said 404 only serves customers on the weekdays, when they cater to the staff in nearby buildings. But a manager said things are picking up on the weekend, prompting them to consider keeping the store open for business on Saturday and Sunday. The space is currently open for events and private parties on the weekends.
"Soon I think we'll start doing brunch on the weekends—it's always packed around here then, with the High Line."
"We're hoping for a lot more foot traffic," said Kristin Boyle, event manager at 404. "Tenth Avenue used to be nothing but desolate. We're hoping this is the new spot—'MiMA,'" she said, referring to "Middle of Manhattan."
Community Board member and long-time Hell's Kitchen resident Joe Restuccia warned that the process of turning the Tenth Avenue strip into a bustling new neighborhood might be a lot longer in the making.
"There's not going to be any real serious change there until Hudson yards develop," he said, referring to the giant empty Tenth Avenue space between 32nd and 33rd Streets. He explained that the developers must find tenants, and then build the intended high rises, before the neighborhood will see dramatic change.
"Everyone is in wait-and-see mode," said Restuccia, explaining the recent rent increases and talk of the area's flourishing."Long term there will be major changes, there's no question," but those changes will take at least five years, he contended.
While he agreed that the High Line has brought a recent influx of foot traffic, he anticipates a much slower gentrification than local business owners have in mind.
Regarding Boyle's use of the term "MiMA," he laughed that it was just "hype."
"MiMA is a marketing name for the building on 42nd street [and Tenth Avenue]," said Restuccia. "Nobody calls the neighborhood MiMa at all, and I find it embarrassing someone says that, because theyre so disconnected to other people in the neighborhood."
He warned that the tenants on the first wave of development might be uprooted by the development itself.
"That building could get demolished in the new development," he warned.
Still, Boyle was undaunted.
"Hopefully this is the new hot neighborhood — the new Chelsea," she said.