WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The developer behind the long-delayed George Washington Bridge Bus Station renovation is blocking a dozen small business owners who signed leases to move into the space from opening, multiple owners told DNAinfo New York — in what they call the latest boondoggle in the troubled project.
Developers George Washington Bridge Redevelopment Venture LLC — a private development company overseeing the redevelopment of the half-century-old terminal in conjunction with the Port Authority — are bogging down small businesses in red tape in the run-up to the planned December 2016 opening date, they said.
“We had a meeting and they told us not to worry, that they’ll open the shop in April 2014,” said Jose Jacobo, founder of the popular franchise “Joyeria Pepe,” who paid $25,000 in up-front signing fees, down payments and other deposits when he signed his lease in fall 2013.
But he said they still had yet to move forward with construction for his shops as of this week, as they and the developers continue to battle over construction companies and costs.
Small business owner Luis Perez, who signed a lease in fall 2014 to open a juice bar and pastry shop inside the terminal, said developers told him at the time to “just be ready to open your business in a few months.”
He said he took them at their word, even though the opening date had been delayed since 2008.
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But Perez said he’s now locked in a fight over cost estimates from the developers’ chosen construction company, The Espinosa Group, whose quote jumped from $150,000 last summer to to nearly $300,000 this spring — with no explanation of the increase.
“I wanted to cry,” Perez said, adding that he and the 11 other small businesses that have signed leases so far also tried seeking help from local elected officials and nonprofits affiliated with the project — to no avail.
Javier Gomez, a spokesman for the GWB Bus Station Redevelopment Venture, insisted that the project is on track to open by the end of 2016, and defended the increase in construction costs.
“Construction charges for each store have depended on each store’s design wishes and needs, independent and unrelated to the developer — but strictly related to what each store owner wants to see inside their business. Increased costs are due to greater amount of finished work that the tenants want, based on what they designed.”
But Guillermo Reyes, who owns three optical businesses throughout Manhattan and The Bronx and planned to open another one inside the terminal, said that explanation makes no sense, given that the only changes he made in his design were to remove expensive items he didn't need.
Reyes said his first estimate was approximately $75,000 — which included $10,000 for the ceiling and a fire extinguisher that was listed at $2,000.
"I couldn’t understand why the fire extinguisher was $2,000, when I could get that at Home Depot for $40,” Reyes said. “I thought it was way too high, but I thought, 'Let me eliminate this and that'.”
Reyes said he requested that the developer remove the ceiling and the fire extinguisher.
When he got his revised quote back from the developers in spring 2016, it had jumped to $129,000, he said.
He said developers told them the cost estimates were based on what had been provided to them by The Espinosa Group.
But officials from The Espinosa group told DNAinfo New York on Thursday that officials at the GWB Venture had dropped their contract to work with the small businesses in late 2015.
“The Espinosa Group is no longer engaged in the bid process for these spaces,” said Michael Espinosa, president of the New Jersey-based Espinosa Group, who confirmed that his team had “provided a price quote for some of the future tenants at the GWB bus terminal” before moving on to focus on carpentry as a subcontractor for the main project.
"We are not involved with the individual tenants," Espinosa said.
GWB Venture's spokesman did not reply to repeated requests for comment on why the company presented estimates to small businesses that they claimed were from The Espinosa Group even after the construction company said they were no longer involved.
Perez said the businesses have repeatedly sought help from their elected officials — State Sen. Adriano Espaillat and City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez — and also complained to representatives from the Port Authority, New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.
He said he and other businesses told DNAinfo the officials all vowed to support them through the construction, opening and even hiring process, but as of last week week they still hadn't heard anything concrete.
“I don’t know what their role is in trying to help us out, but nothing happened and they all disappeared," Perez said.
Officials from Espaillat's and Rodriguez's offices defended their efforts in a joint statement:
"Our offices continue to work diligently on behalf of the community, to ensure there is a true sense of partnership when it comes to the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal. We have reached out to the Port Authority about holding a second town hall meeting with the developers, so they can respond to community needs and concerns. This includes affordable rents for local existing small business, hiring from within the surrounding neighborhoods and the 26,000 square feet in community space previously agreed upon by the Port and the developers. We hope to announce a date soon for this meeting and expect the Port Authority and their partners to be good landlords for this important space going forward."
The president of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce’s, Quenia Abreu, who said she received $29,687.47 from the Port Authority – out of a $78,940 contract - to help them connect with women- and minority-owned businesses as well as to hire local residents to work in the terminal, said the Port Authority terminated her contract earlier this year after she began to push for them to make good on their promise.
“I got a call from the Port Authority — because the project was delayed and they didn’t know when they were going to be in need [of our] organization … they were not going to extend the contract,” she said.
Officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did not respond to several requests for comment.
Another small business owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said there were red flags about developers' handling of the project from the start.
For one, they didn’t even ask the small businesses for financial information, credit checks or business plans that explained how the businesses were going to run, the small business owner said. The developers simply demanded the down payment of $8,000 for the space, $3,000 for the architect and $1,500 for a lawyer, with a steadily increasing set of fees as the project dragged on.
If she'd known then what she knows now, she said, she may never have signed up.
“We didn’t know it was going to cost us $200,000," she said, "and that construction was going to be delayed for a year and a half."