Retailers look forward to summer

Business Improvement District has big plans

By Fausto Giovanny Pinto

After a slow start, the Southern Boulevard Business Improvement District has begun its effort to improve shopping in Hunts Point and Longwood for both retailers and their customers.

Cleaner streets are the first sign of progress, according to some of the businesses and shoppers on Southern Boulevard and on Westchester Avenue.

Two employees of a contractor hired by the BID sweep the streets seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and a half day on Sundays.

They have replaced the twice-a-week cleaners from Community Solutions, a program that puts non-violent offenders from The Bronx Criminal Court to work.

“It’s a good start. They make things neat,” said Dan Meenan, manager of Sol’s Drugs. It “gives us a nice presence,” he continued, “less tickets from Sanitation and it draws customers in. It’s also one less thing we have to worry about.”

Others complain that the BID hasn’t accomplished more since Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the law creating it on the last day of 2007.

“Only thing they have done is clean the streets,” said Chuck Goldman owner of H&R Coats.

“People did not understand that things are not going to happen right away. It’s a process that takes time,” responds Medina Sadiq, the Business Improvement District’s executive director, when asked about its accomplishments to date.

While legally the organization may have been born a year and a half ago, it had to put its board together and search for and hire an executive director before it could set to work. In reality, “we’re only seven months old,” insisted Sadiq, who was hired in September and measures the BID’s progress from that date.

“Its presence will be felt soon,” Sadiq promised. The BID will begin beefing up security this summer, when it plans to install security cameras able to zoom in on a face or license plate. Police and other agencies will monitor feeds from the cameras, she said.

Work will also begin to make the shopping streets more attractive. The BID will pay to renovate tree pits along Southern Boulevard, steam clean the sidewalks, and begin a graffiti removal program.

It also plans to display distinctive banners to mark the shopping streets in its territory, to activate a Web site and to sponsor sidewalk sales. Stores will be allowed to display their merchandise outside without getting tickets.

Those changes can’t come too soon for storeowners like Roland Ezemma, owner of Blueprint USA, which sells high-end urban wear. “We need to promote this area,” he said “Advertising, you never see any of that here, like other areas such as Pelham or Fordham. People still associate this area with violence, not shopping.”

Publicity and more attractive streets won’t solve what many merchants call the area’s biggest problem, however.

“There’s no parking. People have to double park. They come in for five minutes and cops give them a ticket,” said Angel Vargas, a clerk at Game Express who is a lifelong resident of Longwood. It’s a complaint all the shoppers and owners interviewed shared.

“The BID can’t solve the parking problem,” said Sadiq. “We can’t fight City Hall for them. Laws are laws. I’ve gotten many tickets myself.”

Shoppers who drive currently have two options: finding a hard-to-come-by legal space on the street or using the parking garage just off Southern Boulevard on Aldus Street. Currently a few stores have set up private accounts with the garage to offer validated parking to customers who make a purchase.

The BID offered to buy tickets from the garage and sell them at a discount to participating stores, but not enough stores agreed to participate, so the plan was dropped.

Sadiq blames the economy. “Things are tight now and the stores can’t pick up that tab,” she said.

Businesses and shopper agree. “People need jobs and money,” Said Hess Akh, manager of Just For You. “It’s really bad,” agreed . Juno Byun, owner of Gameworld Wireless. “It’s not like before. People think twice before buying.”

For Jason Jones, who was carrying a handful of bags holding his purchases on a recent shopping trip, though, there is still no better place to shop.

“Things are cheaper here,” he said, “and there’s an improvement. This place used to be a mess. It’s also safer now.”

A version of this story appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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