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Grand Street Group Combats High Vacancy Rates

The Alien Cafe owner Spiros Zimas hopes his new business will thrive on Grand Street despite high vacancies on the block.
The Alien Cafe owner Spiros Zimas hopes his new business will thrive on Grand Street despite high vacancies on the block.
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DNAinfo/Meredith Hoffman

WILLIAMSBURG — Artineh Havan hopes Grand Street will become the next hot shopping spot—quite a feat, considering the strip from Union Avenue to Manhattan Avenue has a 14 percent vacancy rate with many storefronts having been emptyfor years.

"A lot of landlords and property owners are absentee and have had their gates down for over 10 years," said Havan, executive director of the Grand Street Business Improvement District.  "When you have a lot of gates down it gives a different image."

To draw more attention to the area, the BID has kicked off several new intiatives — including one starting Friday, a community logo competition, in which the winning designer will take home $1,000.

But property owners like John Russo, 82 — who said he wants to sell his five Grand Street buildings — have already given up on the neighborhood.

"The situation is just bad," he said in Spanish in front of one of his buildings Thursday, which he said has been vacant the past five years. "I've tried to sell this building for five years."

Ernesto and Teresa Leal, who have owned a party supply store on Grand Street for 30 years, said they were hanging by a thread trying to keep their business open.

"Since we've been here so many years we have regulars, but if we were new we'd already be closed," said Teresa Leal. "But our families that buy party supplies are leaving the neighborhood."

She said the BID's new management was more active in helping the shops' success, but that they still had a long way to go.

Grand Street has grown its nightlife scene in recent years — bars include Huckleberry Bar and Redd's Tavern and customers praise late-night falafel at Manna on Yelp — but Havan said the bar scene has also caused shops to wait to open their doors until later in the day, so new retailers have hesitated to occupy the vacant spots.

"We've seen a decline in daytime foot traffic," she said of the past couple of years, "and as retail has moved out people really don't think of it as a shopping destination."

Currently the BID has planned participation in the summer festival Williamsburg Walks and students from the neighboring Grand Street High School for Enterprise and Business Technology are surveying the street to determine needs of the shops, Havan said, who has also applied for a city grant to do a more comprehensive analysis of the area's needs.

"There's hope," said Havan, noting that Radio Shack and an expanded Sprint store have both opened in recent months, "but we have to make the push."

But Spiros Zimas, the owner of three-week-old Alien Cafe, said he had faith the neighborhood's new residents, coming from around Bedford and Manhattan avenues, would contribute to a boom.

"People are moving in and they need this type of restaurant," he boasted of his Greek diner, which will begin serving wine and beer within days. "It's a positive," he said of the strip's evolution.

The street is holding a Cinco de Mayo pub crawl Saturday afternoon and Havan said she hopes drawing attention to the popular bars in the daytime might help local retailers.