Along Broadway in the Bronx a person can find much of what the heart might desire: coffee and party goods, medical care and takeout food, a post office and gym, banks and bodegas—the usual mix of urban retail.
At the corner of Broadway and Kimberly Place, however, one could also discover a little style. There for decades stood the retro kitsch of Land & Sea, a corner restaurant featuring rounded windows, tropical cocktails and swooping 1960s curves. It looked like the kind of place where Don Draper might have tossed back an old-fashioned or two.
But Land & Sea is no more. It survived many changes in taste, but could not outlast the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an official at the Kingsbridge business improvement district.
The demise of Land & Sea reflects the danger facing may thousands of city businesses in the wake of COVID-19—a disease that, measured in the rate of cases and deaths, hit the Bronx harder than any other borough.
Fortunately, according to interviews last week with representatives of several Bronx business improvement districts, or BIDs, the Kingsbridge seafood spot is among the few businesses actually to shut down so far as a result of the pandemic and the PAUSE.
Their fates shaped by the unique patterns of their neighborhoods, most Bronx firms appear to be hanging on. The question is how much longer that can last, and what the city might do to help them survive.
In Morris Park, BID director Camelia Tepelus says a loyal local clientele has helped her businesses weather the storm so far.
“We are kind of fortunate because right now I think I’m at like 85 percent. And even of those that aren’t fully open, I think they are negotiating with their landlords over rents, and payment plans,” she says. “We are fortunate because our mix of businesses contains a lot of essential business or businesses that were smart enough to start selling supplies that made them ‘essential businesses,’ so they stayed open.”
In some ways, Tepelus says, the fact that Morris Park is not a major commercial corridor was its salvation: There wasn’t a lot of transient commerce to lose. “Funnily enough, under COVID, people were stuck at home,” she says. “So we saw more foot traffic than on normal days when they were off at work.”
The Belmont BID does tend to get more outside traffic, but BID director Peter Madonia says some businesses were able to navigate the worst weeks by staying open, and others by staying closed.
“There’s the retail stores–butchers, bakers, pasta makers–and the first four to six weeks, they were probably running at 20 to 30 percent, but everyone stayed open, everyone kept their people,” he says. “Over time, the retail got back pretty close to normal because we are an outside shopping district.” In other words, people felt comfortable standing outside, going into a store quickly to buy something, and then coming out again—no one had to be in an indoor space for very long, as they would at a supermarket. BID staffers shifted from cleaning litter into mass-sanitizing the district, by wiping down ATMs and door handles.
The restaurants were closed until two or three weeks ago, then reopened to take advantage of outdoor dining. Everyone geared up to shift operations to the sidewalk. “They really did a nice job. They spent what they had to spend to get set up on the sidewalk. They figured out the distancing for their restaurant. They figured out the logistics of serving the food outside,” he said. “It’s come back enough to keep their heads above water.”
The recent reopening of the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden have helped swell the crowds, and the outdoor restaurants are full most nights. A few are still shuttered, doing renovations while they wait for indoor dining to resume.
Along the Jerome Avenue and Gun Hill Road corridors, the pandemic had a different effect. Because of the presence of Montefiore and North Central Bronx hospitals, there was an increase in foot traffic. Some food establishments actually did much better than usual because of the activity in the area. Of course, not everyone benefitted, says BID director Jennifer Tausig: nail salons and hail salons are suffering. All in all, however, the area’s retail is faring decently. The lesson, Tausig says, is that “anchor institutions have an impact on local neighborhoods.”
A team effort?
Cary Goodman, who runs the 161st Street BID, would agree. However, in his area, the anchor business—the New York Yankees—is not providing the kind of boost local retail depends on. As a result, “Our businesses are teetering on the brink of destruction,” Goodman says.
The late start of a baseball season with no fans has been devastating to the bars, restaurants and souvenir shops that normally have throngs passing by on 81 afternoons or evenings every spring and summer.
“These folks only have a five-month business cycle. It’s like a shore town. These guys had waited since last October to start their business cycle, and that’s exactly when the pandemic hit,” Goodman says. Some of those firms skip rent during the off season and so carried some arrears into the spring. “A lot of these people are already $100,000 or more in the whole.”
The restaurants have not had an easy time trying to shift to sidewalk service or takeout, Goodman says. And landlords are unlikely to cut any of the businesses a break on rent, Goodman says. “They’re in the same boat as their tenants in that they’re depending on the rent roll,” he says. “That’s their livelihood.”
Goodman says he asked the Yankees to step up with direct aid for neighboring small businesses, but they refused. He points to the fact that the team—which pays no property taxes or rent to the city—will still generate revenue this year using the stadium as a giant TV studio for fan-free games. “If it’s not criminal it’s pretty damn close to immoral for the Yankees to make millions of dollars off that stadium without doing anything for the businesses in the community,” he says. “They’re not trying at all.“
“The Yankees are committed to supporting their neighbors and community partners, working in conjunction with them to enhance the quality of life throughout the surrounding communities,” the team said in a statement. The Yankees said they had contributed to an emergency relief fund for Bronx small businesses and donated to several food programs and youth organizations. (Some of the efforts are less impressive than others, like the fact that “Yankees Manager Aaron Boone recently sent along a private and unique message of encouragement to the members of the 1199SEIU workers union.”)
On the other side of Grand Concourse, where the customers are mostly neighborhood residents and people using the courthouses, business has picked up a little bit, Goodman says. The retail scene there was driven more by local residents than commuters or tourists. “But overall it’s still the neighborhood that’s the poorest, the sickest – the one that’s been hit hardest by the pandemic,” Goodman says.
Aid helped some, not others
The neighborhoods have also had different experiences seeking outside aid. Federal payroll protection programs were a big boon in Morris Park (Tepelus says she went door-to-door and all but ordered businesses to apply for PPP), but in Belmont restauranteurs found it difficult to access the program because they were closed during the application period.
The city’s efforts to shore up small businesses—an employee retention grant and a loan fund—were not major players, sources say. BID directors say most firms opted not even to apply, deciding that the dollar amounts were not meaningful.
According to the city’s Department of Small Business Services, while the Bronx has 8 percent of the city’s small businesses, Bronx businesses received just 3 percent of the retention funds and 2 percent of the total loan program.
In a statement to City Limits, SBS said, “We are dedicated to giving small businesses in all five boroughs the tools they need to thrive, especially after the past few difficult months. That is why we have connected 4,200 small businesses to local and federal grant and loan funding since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. … [W]e will continue to fight for more funds for our small businesses through federal aid.”
Because of the PPP loans, Tepelus believes Morris Park businesses can hang on until the end of 2020 even if indoor dining remains forbidden. “It will cover their basic operating expense. You cannot grow or plan to grow. You can keep your head above water but you’re not going anywhere,” she says. “They are all on standby. Stable but on standby.”
The clock ticks
Even in Goodman’s BID, no store has closed its doors forever, yet. But even in the BIDs where firms are faring better, the pandemic did damage, and serious risks exist.
“It still feels sort of like we’re all treading water,” Tausig says. “And we’re tired of treading water.”
Tepelus says every business in Morris Park suffered a drop in revenue no matter how lucky or nimble they were, and while five stores have opened since March, one business, a bowling alley, is in danger of closing. The Kingsbridge BID says in addition to Land & Sea it’s lost a Chinese take-out place and a dry cleaner. In Belmont, one fairly new restaurant has folded. Taken together,
Madonia believes the existence of outdoor dining as close as Yonkers presents a real threat to the Belmont commercial scene, since so much of its customer base comes from well outside the neighborhood. Even if Belmont’s restaurants keep filling their outdoor seats, that represents a mere fraction of their normal capacity, creating tight margins that will be very difficult to sustain. As the months roll on, weather challenges will mount. Outdoor dining will be difficult in the winter without heat lamps, which will require some flexibility on the city’s part. Same goes for accommodating car traffic, which is what brings many customer to the Bronx’s Little Italy. Flexible traffic enforcement and more traffic control would help, he says.
Even if indoor dining is not green-lighted, businesses will survive through the winter holidays. “If it’s a lot longer than that without indoor, especially with everyone around us being able to eat indoors, it’s going to be hard in January and February, even March,” Madonia says. “But I don’t think anybody is on the verge of collapse between now and the end of the year. I think they are living to fight another day.”
Up in the Jerome-Gun Hill area, Tausig says, where the hospital crowds have thinned, the problem isn’t so much whether indoor dining comes back but whether retailers can square their expenses with the reality of reduced demand in the softening city economy.
“The elephant in the room is rent,” she says. “Some of our businesses have been able to negotiate a payment plan or are paying what they can or are getting extensions on their rents. There definitely are landlords who are waiting to August 20 to start getting rid of people, which is crazy because I don’t know who they thing they’re going to get in there.” August 20 is when an eviction moratorium lifts.
She thinks property tax abatements might be needed to entice commercial landlords not to kick firms to the curb. “It does feel a little bit like we need to figure out whose going hold the bag at the end of the day and it’s probably going be a little bit of everybody – the landlord, the tenant and the government.”