As Merchants Fight Concourse Plaza Overhaul, Some Shoppers Welcome It

By Patrick Wall on January 7, 2013 7:21am 

CONCOURSE — Inside the food court at Concourse Plaza last week, David Wang sold steaming mounds of teriyaki chicken and yellow rice, now for $5.29 a plate, as he has for the past 11 years.

Lately, his only competition is a Taco Bell franchise whose owner, like Wang, has refused to leave the food court since the mall's owner, the Feil Organization, tried to close it last month to make way for new development.

Wang has seven years remaining on his lease, but it contains a clause that allows the owner to cancel it for any reason with 90 days notice, which Wang received in June, according to him and a lawyer who saw the lease.

Wang, 40, worries what would happen to his five employees and his two young daughters — not to mention the customers who have devoured his food several times a week for years — if he agrees to vacate the shopping center on 161st Street.

“It’s not just a food court, it’s a community center,” said Wang, who will appear in court Monday to contest his eviction. “That’s why we’re going to stay as long as we can. We’re going to fight to the end.”

In addition to overhauling the food court, Feil plans this year to renovate the entire 228,000-square-foot shopping center, which includes about a dozen retail stores, a bank, a supermarket and a 10-screen movie theater.

While many locals welcome an updated complex, others fear higher prices and a loss of small, independent businesses.

Roughly a half-dozen eateries and several other merchants have already left the food court since Feil terminated or declined to extend their leases last year. Wang said more than 100 people worked in the food court before the closures.

A few retailers in the plaza’s strip mall outside the food court have also departed.

“Change is always difficult,” said Randall Briskin, Feil’s vice president of leasing. “But the good news about change is that you end up with a better product at the end.”

The year-long renovations will include a “physical facelift and a revamping of the center,” according to a statement Feil released in October.

The building that now contains the food court will feature a mix of retailers and sit-down restaurants, but no common dining area, Briskin said.

A marketing brochure appears to reconfigure most of the current food court into a single 7,100-square-foot space, surrounded by four smaller spaces, which were all listed as available as of December.

Renovations will not extend to the lower-level multiplex, Briskin said.

Feil is leasing three floors of a newly built five-story building behind the food court to Blink Fitness, which is set to open this month.

Feil has not described its redevelopment plans for the rest of the plaza, which sits east of the Grand Concourse on 161st Street, across from the Bronx County Hall of Justice and just north of Concourse Village.

But rezoning approved in 2009 allows for 600,000 feet of new development at the shopping center, according to Feil, which has some merchants bracing for major changes this year.

An employee at Easy Pickins, which sits adjacent to the food court, said the store will soon relocate to another part of the plaza because of construction. Business has already taken a hit since the eateries began to leave, the employee added.

“It’s better when [the food court was] open,” the employee said. “People come, they shop, they eat, they want to shop again.”

Another longtime plaza retailer, Kidstown, will soon shut its doors for good.

“We would have loved to have stayed, but they wouldn’t renew the lease,” said David Sutton, a buyer for the store.

When Feil began informing food court vendors of its redevelopment plans last summer and issuing vacate notices, some merchants distributed a petition and launched a website to preserve the food court. Others turned to attorneys.

Some suggested the company was undertaking the renovations to raise rents because the plaza’s annual tax exemptions are set to expire in June after 22 years.

But Briskin said the exemptions played no role in the company’s decision-making and noted that the tax reductions have been phasing out over several years. The plaza saved slightly less than $375,000 through exemptions last fiscal year on its $2.3 million annual property taxes, according to tax records.

Briskin also pointed out that he allowed several merchants to remain in the food court until December, after their leases had already expired, and that he met repeatedly with local leaders to discuss the redevelopment plans.

Cary Goodman, executive director of the 161st Street business improvement district, said he met with Feil representatives at least six times.

They explained that even as the food court sold about 30,000 meals each week, the company lost money maintaining it, Goodman said. Then they discussed renovation plans with the various stakeholders, promising to keep some food options at the mall.

“This was sort of a model of getting the community board, the property owner, the merchants and the political infrastructure involved in saying, ‘If this is going to be changed, what would be best,’” Goodman said.

Many Concourse Plaza patrons say the overhaul — the first major rehab since the complex opened about two decades ago — is long overdue, with the food court in particular need of attention.

“That place was a dump,” one Parkchester woman wrote about the food court in a Facebook discussion last year, echoing many similar comments.

But others lament the loss of a single site with many quick, affordable dining options in a crowded neighborhood home to government offices, sprawling housing developments and a courthouse that summons 3,000 jurors each month.

“It’s bad for the neighborhood,” said Clifton Ables, 48, a psychologist who works in the courthouse and eats at the plaza's food court several times a week. “This is the most convenient place.”

Some said they had enjoyed grabbing a bite in the food court before rushing to the downstairs movie theater. Others remarked how some restaurants along 161st Street are less affordable than those that once filled the food court, such as McDonald’s.

“The diners here, the food is very pricey,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, 29, over lunch in the food court with her daughter. “But with $4 at McDonald’s, you can have a meal.”

But a Concourse Village resident who gave only her first name, Raquel, deemed the possible price increases and loss of the smaller stores that redevelopment may induce as signs of progress.

“We have to expect that with an improved neighborhood,” she said.

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