By Serena Solomon
DNAinfo Reporter Producer
GREENWICH VILLAGE — Storeowners stand at their doors or look out of windows, eagerly searching for customers. Retail vacancies dot the strip and foot traffic is scarce.
What was once a hot stretch of commercial real estate for the neighborhood, West 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues has seen a steady decline in recent years, leading to high retail vacancies and storeowners who fear the worst.
But despite the downturn, some remain confident West 8th Street retail stores can rise again.
"I think it is challenging and we are focusing our efforts on that western block," said William Kelley, who recently took over as executive director of the Village Alliance. "It needs some new attention, focus and buzz."
According to Kelley, commercial vacancies along West 8th Street are currently at 9.8 percent, almost double the district’s average vacancy rate of 5.1 percent. Starting next month, the Village Alliance is conducting a survey of store owners and locals to uncover what is holding the strip back.
The free live music festival Make Music New York will kick off on June 21st. Locals hope it will breathe new life into the strip where Barbara Streisand got her start and Jimi Hendrix founded the Electric Lady Sound Studios in 1969.
For those whose livelihoods hang in the balance, change needs to come quickly.
"No one survives on West 8th Street," said Cathy Okroashvili, 37, who has managed Jubliee, a shoe store, for over ten years. "I want to stay here, but to be honest we live day by day."
In the 1980s and 1990s, West 8th Street was known as shoe store alley, but the traffic has been diverted to places like Union Square or SoHo, Okrashvili said.
The storeowner of Fashion Shop Express, who gave his name only as Barry, told DNAinfo he was ready to end his 34 year career on West 8th Street. He's only managed to stay open so far because of a flexible landlord and generous suppliers.
"Why am I wasting my time and my life?" he asked. "My foot is out. I’m ready to go."
Others see an opportunity for positive growth in the decline, including possibilities for West 8th Street to expand into a new restaurant hub.
"We see there is a move towards something positive and we are trying to be pioneers in that," said Richard Lusardi, the owner of a four-month-old restaurant called Alma 33.
In the last three years many restaurants have come and gone, but Lusardi said he relies on quality food and wine to draw customers back.
"To me it not only depends on local business, but I am really trying to make it into a destination," he said.
Those who own the properties are also optimistic that West 8th Street is returning as a force in local commerce.
"There has been a significant increase in traffic for people looking for properties on West 8th Street," said Bill Abramson, director of brokerage for Buchbinder and Warren Realty Group.
Abramson said he has two significant leases under contract and has just signed Textile Arts Center for an 820 sq. ft space. The large Brooklyn-based textile store is due to open in the next two months bringing much needed foot traffic to the area.
For Abramson, the lethargic mood of West 8th Street is just part of the cycle of business.
"Every corridor and commerce area goes through ups and downs," he said. "There is a natural shift that goes on."