A new proposal to offer grants to some businesses on Second Avenue impacted by subway construction gets mixed reactions
By Mary Kekatos
Upper East Side Ever since Joe Zafiropoulos bought Atomic Wings on Second Avenue near East 94th Street six months ago, maintaining the restaurant has been an uphill struggle. He says that the construction of the Second Avenue subway line, which began in 2007, has left doors jams not being properly aligned and foundation cracks.
Atomic Wings is not the only restaurant suffering from construction. Businesses up and down Second Avenue have been reporting loss in profits. Some have even had to close due to poor sales.
Many complaints stem from the fact that storefronts are blocked by fences, limiting foot traffic as well as cars being able to park.
"No parking out front makes it a nightmare," said Zafiropoulos. "Parking to get food is not an option, which limits the amount of people that normally would be coming in here."
While local business owners, organizations like the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and Upper East Side elected officials have been trying to help Second Avenue businesses get through the worst of the construction period, freshman City Council Member Ben Kallos has proposed a new potential solution.
Kallos wants the city to offer grants to small businesses that can show a 10 percent decline in revenue over the past year and are located within 150 feet of a major municipal construction area.
The proposal is modeled on one that Kallos worked on with former Assembly Member Jonathan Bing in 2008, at the state level. Now he hopes to garner enough public support to bring it to the city council.
Some Second Avenue storefronts have been impacted, but not quite enough to need a government grant.
Mark, the owner of The Toolbox, a bar on Second Avenue near 91st Street, says that business has not been drastically impacted by construction, as it has ended by the time the bar opens at 8 p.m. He does say, however, that the lack of parking has been quite a problem.
Although the MTA added signs on the exterior of the construction site to help pedestrians find these businesses, Zafiropoulos said that this has not greatly helped Atomic Wings. This has especially been a blow to restaurants in the area as they heavily rely on street traffic.
When Zafiropoulos first bought Atomic Wings, he participated in a Groupon deal to try to attract new customers. He said about 10 percent of customers couldn't locate the restaurant when driving there.
"We lost about $30,000 in revenue to what we would normally have gotten," he added.
Other restaurants have taken different measures in an effort to improve business such as La Tarte Flambée near East 91st Street, who changed their hours due to construction. Owner Mathias Peter could not be reached for comment.
The previous owner told Zafiropoulos that construction would be moving to the other side in March 2014. "Now it's June," he said, "and who knows when construction will actually be moved."
While Zafiropoulos thought that grants would be nice, Mark said that due to his business not being as impacted as others, he would most likely not go through the trouble of applying for a grant.
"It's a great idea but I don't know if it has any legs," said Manhattan Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Ploeger. "I wish something could have been worked out 10 years ago."
Ploeger, who has worked with many businesses on Second Avenue to alleviate problems caused by the subway construction, said that the idea raises a number of important questions that would have to be answered before any grant program could be implemented.
For example, Ploeger said, it's unclear what the exact criteria would be, what types of businesses would qualify to get the grants ? would the rules be the same for, say, a restaurant and a shoe store? ? and what kind of compensation would be available to owners of stores that have already had to close? Could a similar program help businesses south of East 80th Street?
The chamber has been keeping track of store vacancies since construction began. They report that from April 2011 to April 2014, vacancy rates have increased on Second Avenue from 7 percent to 13 percent. Ploeger added that it is important to remember that the recession hit in 2008, which had a devastating effect on businesses.
"We have been, since the beginning, really trying to promote the Second Avenue businesses," Ploeger said. Past initiatives have included 2nd Avenue Restaurant Week. Most recently launched was "Mondays on 2nd" where, every week, a different business is promoted.
Phase 1 of the subway line (96th Street to 63rd Street) is set to open in December 2016 and, for some businesses, that date could not come any sooner. Zafiropoulos has big plans for how he'd like to improve the restaurant once the construction disappears. He wants to petition the landlord to redo the front, repair the sidewalk and add curbside service.
"It just doesn't make sense to do it now because all that work we do might end up getting destroyed," he explained. "This construction is simply impacting our ability to improve."