Coney Island

Despite local tourism, Coney Island corridor struggles with storefront vacancy

September 9, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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Despite the neighborhood’s vibrant population and reputation as a summer destination, a Coney Island shopping corridor has one of the highest rates of storefront vacancies in the borough.

“In Coney Island, we have double the average vacancy rate in New York City, which is very sober, but it’s not shocking to the people that live in the neighborhood,” Councilmember Mark Treyger, who represents the coastal community, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “This has been one of the most pressing challenges in terms of revitalizing all of our key commercial corridors.”

According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, more than 30,000 people live in Coney Island. Its amusement district — currently larger than it has been at any time since the mid-1960s — draws millions of people annually.

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As wonderful as Surf Avenue and the Riegelmann Boardwalk are, Treyger said, Mermaid Avenue — where residents shop on a daily basis — is struggling to keep businesses intact. In fact, the strip — the second avenue back from the beach — saw just 54 percent of its businesses survive from 2011 to 2016, according to a recent study from the Department of City Planning.

Nino Russo, one of the owners of Gargiulo’s, a family-owned restaurant right off of Mermaid Avenue on West 15th Street, called the issue a catch-22.

“If you don’t bring nicer things down here, you’re not going to attract the clientele to buy the quality of stuff to keep these stores in business,” he told the Eagle. “What they’re selling in these stores is not going to generate enough money for these people to pay the high rents and stay in business. And, while [Coney Island] is growing, there’s still a lot to be done.”

His restaurant, a neighborhood staple since 1907, is one of the lucky ones on the strip. “God bless my father and my uncles that bought all of this property back when it was affordable,” Russo said, further noting that his biz attracts patrons well beyond Mermaid. “I would love to see other businesses on the avenue have that sort of success.”

The DCP study, released earlier this month, assessed vacant storefronts across 24 neighborhoods over the course of a nine-month period from 2017 to 2018. While Manhattan’s Canal Street had the highest rate of empty storefronts of the two dozen corridors studied, Coney Island falls not far behind.

Of the neighborhoods surveyed, the People’s Playground had the third-highest rate of empty storefronts in Brooklyn (tied with Brownsville). According to the report, Bedford-Stuyvesant had the highest rate in the borough (19.8 percent). Nearly 17 percent of Williamsburg’s storefronts were vacant, with about 14 percent empty in both Coney Island and Brownsville, respectively.

DCP deemed Coney Island’s Mermaid Avenue and Brownsville’s Pitkin Avenue “underperforming corridors” — a designation characterized by “long-term historic disinvestment where storefronts may be difficult to tenant due to poor conditions or negative perceptions of the neighborhood,” according to the agency.

This could have to do with any number of things, Treyger said, stressing that, while the “policymaker in me wants to pass something to fix this,” it’s not that simple.

Chart via DCP

“There are a number of factors at play here,” Treyger explained. He pointed first to Sandy, the 2012 superstorm from which the waterfront neighborhood is still recovering, then to rising rents across the city.

But, the issue is also largely bureaucratic, the pol said.

“There really has not been a comprehensive plan to revitalize the commercial corridor,” Treyger explained, adding that sometimes, the neighborhood is at the mercy of out-of-area developers who aren’t clued into the needs of the community and who just want to sign a quick lease.

“The government cannot compel the private sector to open up shop there, but we can make it more appealing,” he went on, adding that, oftentimes, enhancements as straightforward as lighting and sidewalk seating can entice new businesses to open up shop.

“These are the things we as lawmakers and community leaders have to fight for,” said Treyger, who recently worked with a number of city agencies and even a local historian to have historic lighting in the neighborhood restored, alongside a batch of new tree beds and benches.

Revitalization efforts since Sandy have run the gamut, according to Alexandra Silversmith, executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island, who agreed with Treyger that it often comes down to people’s perception of the community.

“There are a lot of negative perceptions — from a sense of high crime to, ‘Oh, people here don’t want to eat a certain food, I’m not going to open that business here,'” she told the Eagle. “None of that is true.”

“There’s a lot of promise here,” she added. “There are good things on the horizon, but for a new business to come fill the vacancy, they need to see that potential as well — and there need to be more city resources directed to the area.”

Image via DCP

According to a Commercial District Needs Assessment released by the city’s Department of Small Business Services in early 2018, both merchants and shoppers said they’d like to see more lighting in the neighborhood.

The recent DCP report found that negative perceptions of a neighborhood’s safety is among the primary challenges facing underperforming corridors like Mermaid Avenue. This type of data, DCP Director Marisa Lago said, is pivotal not just for business-owners, but for all who hold stake in a community.

“In an ever-changing city where neighborhood shopping is an important facet of urban life, it’s crucial that we put as much reliable data as possible into the hands of business owners, residents, policy makers and elected officials,” she said in a statement. “DCP’s research shows that the reasons for storefront vacancies are complex and varied and that solutions must be nuanced and targeted — or we may do more harm than good. And, encouragingly, our research also reveals that many community shopping districts are thriving.”

When it comes to Coney Island, Treyger said, “We’re doing what we can locally by investing in streetscape improvements, but there really needs to be an all-hands-on-deck type of approach so that we can get the type of retail — bakeries, health food stores, clothing stores — that people really want to see.”

“I think there’s been a misconception of the types of services people want in Coney Island, and a real mismatch between real estate brokers and the community,” echoed Silversmith. “If this area’s going to grow — which we already know it is — and we’re already hearing from residents that they want more healthy food options, and more clothing stores, we’ve got to fix that broken link.”

Russo said he’s hopeful for the future.

“I think with all the development coming, something good’s gonna come for Mermaid Avenue, too,” he said. “Coney Island is getting better and better. Hopefully we can see the same thing here on Mermaid.”

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