By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — When Loretta Cox needs a pair of shoes, she takes the subway from her East Harlem apartment to Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side because the stores in her neighborhood don't carry her size.
"I try to shop here but they don't have much of anything that I need," said Cox, 58, a retired data processing clerk.
And LaTanya Johnson, a medical billing clerk, has ventured as far as the Walmart in Kearney, N.J., because she doesn't like the price or quality of meat in East Harlem.
"I think the meat at Pathmark costs too much and at some of the other supermarkets, the meat is black like my coat," said Johnson, 42. "I would love to shop here instead of spending money on gas."
East Harlem residents want to shop in their neighborhood but there simply aren't enough attractive, quality retail options along the area's main shopping strips to keep the money local, according to a retail analysis conducted by Community Board 11.
According to the survey, 90 percent of respondents shop at one of the four major shopping corridors in East Harlem: Third Avenue between East 96th and East 128th streets; and along 106th, 116th and 125th streets between Fifth Avenue and the FDR Drive.
The four areas represent an established commercial presence with 540 store fronts and 1.85 million square feet of commercial space. However, area merchants in these corridors are only capturing 30 percent of the $1.2 billion in potential sales, according to the CB11 report. More than 70 percent of those surveyed said they wanted more variety.
"The demand was surprising. Just by looking at the corridors you see the active retail presence but you just don't have the same quality of the Upper West Side and Midtown," said Paul Costa, a 2010 fellow for the Manhattan Borough President's office with a Master's in Urban Planning, who conducted the study. "[Residents] wanted better stores and would shop here if they were here."
The retail strips lack places to get quality fresh fruits and other foods. Approximately 81 percent of residents surveyed said they wanted more supermarkets while 84 percent said they wanted more healthy food and nutrition stores. About 61 percent of those surveyed said they did not want more fast food establishments.
Sandra DeLeon, deputy director of the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation, said her organization just finished a yet-to-be published study that reinforced many of CB11's findings.
"What is new to the area is the amount of information about diabetes and obesity and heart conditions," DeLeon said. "People are saying 'Maybe I need to do something different.' People are not anti-fast food, they are just pro-fresh fruits and vegetables."
There is also a problem with a lack of diversity among stores. So although the area has many clothing stores, they are not of the type residents want. One stretch of Third Avenue between East 108th and East 110th streets contains seven clothing and sneaker stores.
But more than 70 percent of residents surveyed said they wanted more clothing stores in East Harlem. About 77 percent said they wanted more shoe stores.
Steve Lopez, 23, whose family owns A.M.– P.M. Menswear on Third Avenue between East 106th and 107th streets, said his store was the only one in the area that sold suits and sweaters and dress shoes.
"Most of the stores are the baggy stuff, the young kid stores. You don't find much adult clothing around here," he said. "It's too much of the same. If there were more diversity, it would bring more people out to shop."
On East 116th Street there is an abundance of professional services, finance and insurance businesses compared to the other three major East Harlem business corridors, which lack these services.
DeLeon said her group was working on a plan to attract the types of businesses that area residents want.
"Sometimes people don't do the necessary research to find out what is required in a neighborhood," she said. "A lot of entrepreneurs come to us with the idea of what they can do rather than thinking about what is required. We want to let people know, 'these are the kind of businesses that are required.'"
Among the things area residents want are book stores, electronics and appliances outlets and more restaurants. The area also lacks recreational businesses. Residents stay in their neighborhood for basic goods but are forced to venture outside for other important discretionary services such as computers and computer software.
Xavier Santiago, chair of Community Board 11's economic development committee and a producer, said he often spoke with younger people who wanted more restaurants and book stores.
"Why would you want to take the 6 train and go five stops when you can get it in your neighborhood? If I can walk in my neighborhood and get the book I want, I will," Santiago said.
Lack of diversity also limits job opportunities in a neighborhood where the unemployment rate is higher than the rest of Manhattan.
There is the potential to correct these problems. There are 102 vacant storefronts and 20 vacant lots available for redevelopment. The East 106th Street corridor is dying. It has the most vacant storefronts and is the least frequented shopping corridor among the residents surveyed.
"We have to reach out to show there is the demand and work with stakeholders to bring in the retail [that] residents want but keep the cultural, community feel that we can use to our advantage," said Costa.
Combined with the pent-up demand, the available space equals opportunity, said Santiago.
"East Harlem has a lot of potential," Santiago said. "This analysis will help us gradually change our neighborhood economically because we want to create an environment where people feel happy about their community."