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10-Block Stretch of Columbus Ave. Struggles to Fill Empty Storefronts

By Kayla Epstein | May 15, 2015 2:39pm | Updated on May 18, 2015 8:54am
 A stretch of the avenue has many businesses that have remained persistently vacant. 
Vacancies on Columbus Avenue
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UPPER WEST SIDE — The blocks between 86th and 96th streets on Columbus Avenue remain stubbornly riddled with vacant storefronts, despite a flurry of retail activity around them.

To the north, the Columbus Square shopping center is rising. To the south, pedestrians flock to new boutiques and restaurants.

But rising rents, a lack of foot traffic, and newer and bigger competition have left the half-mile stretch floundering.

Shakir Thanalawa closed Columbus Distributors Hardware at West 93rd Street and relocated to Harlem after his rent doubled. When he renewed a five-year lease in 2007, he said, the rent jumped from about $7,000 a month to $12,000.

“It nearly killed me,” Thanalawa said.

“It took me so many years to settle down and have an established business in this neighborhood,” he added. “[Those] five years did give me a sour taste in my mouth.”

Simon Tung, who opened the Macaron Parlour cafe on 88th Streets and Columbus in February 2014, noticed that “ever since we’ve been there, we’ve watched older businesses close around us.”

Small businesses that have operated on the block for years are eyeing Columbus Square warily, as stores like Whole Foods, Michael’s and Home Goods vie for the same customers as the independent grocery and home improvement stores that have traditionally called these blocks home.

“Big guys like Whole Foods really make a difference,” said Raj Patel, who operates New Westlane Wines and Liquors on 94th Street.

While Patel isn’t worried in the near term about the big-name competition, he and his nephew, with whom he runs the shop, said that Whole Foods’ wine store, with its numerous bargain options, has influenced how their own customers shop.

Sergio Aranda, who has worked at Mila Café on 94th Street and Columbus Avenue for the past 10 years, is worried about the newer, trendier competition like Birch Coffee at 96th Street.

“Lunch here used to be crazy,” he said, gesturing toward a room of empty tables.

Aranda said he has watched the neighborhood change, with young commuters and families replacing older residents who would spend hours over coffee.

“We need to start attracting those young people” who visit Birch Coffee, or Gabriela’s Restaurant and Tequila Bar next door, he said.

But competition from hipster-friendly chains doesn’t entirely explain why some storefronts on this stretch of Columbus have closed or remained unoccupied, while areas to the north and south experience a boom.

“Part of the issue is that the area is neither fish nor fowl,” said real estate agent Rafe Evans. “You’re kind of stuck in no-man’s land.”

He called 86th Street a “line of demarcation,” with more upscale dining and shopping to the south. The north becomes far quieter and more residential, with fewer storefronts to house restaurants or boutiques, and less foot traffic to pass them by.

On the block between 86th and 87th alone, four storefronts — nearly half of those on that block — sit empty. The most prominent space, on the northeast corner of 86th Street, was home to Three Star Coffee Shop until the diner permanently shuttered in February 2014 after repeated health violations.

Two other storefronts in the same building, one a former Allstate office, have also been empty for more than a year.

On the northern end of the block, at 555 Columbus Ave., sits the empty shell of Olympic Gourmet Deli, which closed in June 2014.

Moving north: 567 Columbus, a former dry cleaner; 569 Columbus, once the short-lived C-Natural juice bar; 687 Columbus, which used to house Columbus Distributors Hardware; and 705 Columbus, a boxy building that held Food City grocery store for decades, have all seen businesses close in recent years.

But some real estate agents have high hopes for the block.

Newer tenants like Macaron Parlour and the outpost of Momofuku Milk Bar that opened in 2011 have found their footing by offering chic storefronts and offbeat, gourmet treats that attract tourists and local families.

“We feel like we’re helping bring that neighborhood [south of 86th] higher north,” Tung said.

Upper West Side residents have expressed a desire to see the storefronts up and running again, but not with the chain stores that have grown north of 96th Street.

Jannette Patterson, a resident who works in real estate, thought the area had potential but wants the block to fill up with independently owned businesses.

“No more Starbucks, no more drugstores, no more big chains,” she said.

“I root for the little guy,” added John Kessler, an attorney who moved to the area last September. “I do want to see the different neighborhoods in New York maintain their personalities. If every block [has] a Starbucks, it all becomes the same thing.”