QUEENS — A number of popular Forest Hills stores and restaurants have shuttered recently, prompting some residents to worry their neighborhood may be losing its unique character along with its mom-and-pop stores.
“I feel that Forest Hills is losing its class and distinctive nature and becoming a more predictable and generic community,” said Michael Perlman, a local resident and historian.
It will follow several other longtime restaurants in the area, including Pasta Del Giorno on Austin Street, as well as Uno Pizzeria and Santa Fe steakhouse on the so-called Restaurant Row on 70th Road, between Austin Street and Queens Boulevard — all of which closed after decades in business.
Some venues are replaced quickly with similar types of establishments, like Mexican eatery El Coyote which took over for Garcia’s Mexican Cafe on Austin Street. The new restaurant Rove is also replacing Bonfire Grill, which closed earlier this year.
But in some cases, like Santa Fe, storefronts remain empty for months. Other venues, including Brandon Cinemas and Pasta Del Giorno, have been taken over by banks and walk-in medical facilities. Barnes & Noble, on Austin Street, will be replaced by a Target.
“If the closure of independent businesses that we can actually consider 'unique' continues, and the long period of vacancies continue for only a chain to rise at some point, our future is bleak,” Perlman noted.
Many blame landlords charging high rents, which in the Austin Street area can range from $5,000 to $7,000 for a small store and from $20,000 to $30,000 for a large space.
Bigger multilevel spaces are said to cost up to $60,000 a month, according to local business owners.
“Banks and medical centers are coming in because these are the people that could pay the higher rents,” said local Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz.
“We’ve lost the movie to a medical center," she said. "[The trend] is very concerning to me, but unfortunately I don’t own the property so I have no control over it.”
Some residents said the area begins to feel like a “mall,” especially with Target coming.
“It’s a totally different look to Austin Street, it’s never going to be the same,” said longtime resident Stephen Melnick, noting that the big box store will likely bring more traffic and delivery trucks to the already congested Austin Street.
But on the other hand, he said, “it’s going to attract more people into the area, which could be good for the other stores and restaurants,” Melnick said.
Jeff Kay, chief operating officer of Muss Development, which owns the property at 70-00 Austin St. that will be taken over by Target, insisted that landlords are considerate when choosing new tenants.
"You don’t always make decisions just on who is going to give you more money, you sometimes make decisions on what’s going to enhance the future of the community and we’ve always done that," he said.
He also said he was confident that Target, which will open a mini version of its store on Austin Street next summer, will benefit the neighborhood.
“We don’t see a negative change at all — we are very proud of what Austin Street is and continues to be and that’s why both national stores and local stores still are looking to come to Austin Street.”
To Leslie Brown, president of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, the changes, more than anything, prove the vibrancy of the area.
“A lot of people think we are a small country town in Connecticut. We are not, we are a vital urban street," she said.
Brown suggested that residents should shop more in local mom-and-pop stores if they want to keep them afloat.
“It has to start with the residents, too, they can’t just get in their cars and drive somewhere else,” Brown said.
She also said that some old-time businesses should do more to attract their customers.
Dmitry Toscano, the owner of Dmitry Ties on Austin Street, agreed.
“It boggles me that there are shops on Austin Street that don’t have a website,” he said. “They are basically relying on a person to come into the store, but in 2015, a lot of shopping is done online."
Toscano added that merchants, in order to be successful, have to offer products that are in demand in the area and pay attention to their storefront windows, which he said is not always the case on Austin Street.
Still others see the recent changes in Forest Hills as part of the dynamics of the city.
“We live in New York City,” said Frank Gulluscio, district manager at Community Board 6, which covers Forest Hills and Rego Park.
Gulluscio acknowledged that he was upset that places like Danny Brown and Barnes & Noble are closing. But at the same time, he said, it’s “the ever changing cycle of business and people.”
“And that’s what Queens and New York City is all about.”
STORES AND RESTAURANTS THAT RECENTLY CLOSED OR ARE ABOUT TO CLOSE IN FOREST HILLS: