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Williamsburg Businesses Hope for Silver Lining in L Train Shutdown

By Gwynne Hogan | July 26, 2016 8:32am
 The L train will shut down between 8th Avenue and Bedford Avenue for 18 months, the MTA said Monday.
The L train will shut down between 8th Avenue and Bedford Avenue for 18 months, the MTA said Monday.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

WILLIAMSBURG — Boutiques, artisanal food shops and galleries that rely on the L train to shuttle their customers to and from Manhattan took the devastating news of the subway line's 18-month shutdown with a mix of dread and optimism.

The prolonged shutdown between Bedford Avenue and 8th Avenue starting in January of 2019, could foster a more Williamsburg-centric economy, with residents in surrounding neighborhoods committing to shopping closer to home, local business owners said.

"A lot of people are simply passing by, going from one location to another. The L train, it's taking you right to the city," said Zach Schmahl, who opened up Schmackary's, a cookie shop and cafe at 193 Bedford Ave. last October. "[The shutdown] could actually keep people in the neighborhood more."

He pointed out the new WeWork facility at 240 Bedford Ave. and other co-working spaces that could serve as good places for businesses to have pop-up, mini-offices, so employees who rely on the L train can work remotely.

The owner of the vintage shop Antoinette at 119 Grand St. who had weathered the L train weekend shutdowns, said that marketing to local residents could be key in helping small businesses like her survive.  

"[People that] live here have to support their small businesses," said Lexi Oliveri. "We can’t forget our locals.”

Real estate adviser for Cayuga Capital Jamie Wiseman pointed to all the forthcoming corporate stores that could continue to draw people to the area from surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods despite an L train shutdown like Trader Joes, Whole Foods and Apple.

The shutdown will determine “How much of a critical mass is that corridor? How much of that already has already crystallized as a shopping district?” Wiseman said.  "[Williamsburg is] where they’re going to go if they can’t get to Soho."

►The L TRAIN SHUTDOWN: HERE'S HOW TO COMMUTE BETWEEN MANHATTAN AND BROOKLYN 

Wiseman hasn't seen commercial tenants turning away from North Brooklyn since news about the L train shutdown came out, rather potential tenants are bargaining for concessions during the shutdown, he said. 

"Maybe I can get a better lease deal and when the train comes back it's even better. Maybe this is an opportunity to cut a better deal," said Wiseman, who added that potential tenants have bargained between 5 and 15 percent rent decreases during the shutdown.

"That might be the difference between them making money and not."

Despite a glimmer of optimism, doubts about the MTA sticking to the 18-month timeline could throw the real estate market into turmoil and further damage local businesses, experts and business owners worry. 

“There’s going to be some excuse and we’re going to get screwed. You just have to kind of roll with the punches," said Oliveri, adding that she learned during previous weekend shutdowns that businesses would have to be proactive in order to survive the downturn.

The MTA had first told businesses they would help with marketing, but those funds never materialized, according to Oliveri. 

"Nothing, not a dime, we did it all ourselves,” she said.

Shop owners had banned together to offer promotions and discounts to customers, which had helped stem the impact of the shutdown tremendously, she said. For a prolonged 2019 shutdown they'll have to be even more resourceful.

“We’re going to have to organize again if you want to stay in business. That’s what you have to do," she said. "You just can’t be silent. That’s why I’ve been in business for five years. You have to get involved.”

While new businesses could be drawn to the area by a brief respite in astronomical commercial rents that rival prices on Los Angeles' Rodeo Drive, shop owners like Schmahl, who just signed a long-term lease and are still working to develop local clientele, are most vulnerable.

Schmahl, opened his first Schmackary's location in Hell's Kitchen in 2012 and when he thought of starting a second outpost, was drawn to Williamsburg by the area's soaring growth and bumping foot traffic.

"It's like that hustling, bustling cool-kids community, it's where all the cool kids are going and hanging out. It's definitely something that we wanted to surround ourselves with," Schmahl said.

Now all of his aspirations to grow his business there are up in the air.

"I don't know if we would have made the move if we'd known," he said.

"Being a new businesses opening over there, it's already tough," he said. "We’re definitely nervous. I won't lie about that."