Owners cite rising rents and city, state policies for troubles
Merchants along Southern Boulevard in Longwood face a number of challenges they say are keeping them from prospering, from the economy to being squeezed by the sanitation department. A new executive director at the Southern Boulevard Business Improvement District is hoping to help them turn their flagging fortunes around.
The city’s 72 Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are public/private partnerships tasked with helping property and business owners promote and maintain the commercial areas they serve.
Bronx native Marques Payne, 30, was hired in the fall to help coordinate the Longwood businesses to work together to draw shoppers to the area, while managing a budget for the local BID that in 2015 was $191,500.
On a recent weekday morning, Payne looked in on the storefronts along the boulevard. Mohammed Jbarah, the owner of Moe’s Furniture at 949 Southern Boulevard, said the sanitation department regularly tickets both his store and his warehouse on Bruckner Boulevard for trumped-up infractions, such as displaying their goods on the street in front of the store to draw foot traffic.
“This is a commercial area,” said Jeff Perez, the store manager. “We’re here for business. We should be able to have our merchandise in front of the store.
“They [the city] want zero visibility,” said Jbarah. “But we’re not midtown Manhattan, we’re Southern Boulevard. Early mornings, “I haven’t opened my gate yet to sweep,” when sanitation trucks swoop in to ticket him for trash his business didn’t generate, he said.
Payne said cutting down on those citations is one problem he is trying to alleviate for the Longwood businesses. “If he makes $200 in sales, he gets $150 in fines. It’s not even worth it for him. Sanitation could ease off a little bit.”
Some owners say landlords are pushing rents ever upwards.
“You make money but the rent is getting higher and higher,” said Harpreet Singh of Lovely Perfume, who says he pays $6,200 a month for his narrow storefront halfway between Westchester Ave. and East 163rd Street. “Fifteen years ago, rent was cheap, business was excellent.” But between a sputtering economy, rising rent and competition both locally and online, making ends meet is more difficult than ever. “Given the space, the rent is too high.”
Roland Elike, 40, has owned BluePrint, a high end sportswear store, since 2002. Business has been “consistently going down,” said Elike from behind the cash register. “The average person is not going to pay $200 for a pair of jeans. I need people with discretionary income.”
Elike first started working in Longwood in the 1990s, and said he remembers a time when nearly all of the storefronts were occupied, with mom and pops running almost all of the businesses while turning a decent profit. He attributed the falloff over the last decade to absentee landlords and stagnant wages for consumers. “Ten years ago it was difficult to find a place, now there are multiple vacancies. All the sole proprietors are gone.”
“Most landlords don’t live here,” Elike added. “They don’t know what’s going on. They used to drop in, but all that is out the window.”
Additionally, he said, landlords have been tacking on increases of up to 7 percent annually, “regardless of how you’re doing,” to help them recoup for high state real estate taxes. Toss in what he said are frivolous sanitation penalties and “the city, the state and the landlords in combination are driving small businesses out.”
Small businesses across the city are feeling the crunch, said Payne, who worked for three years for the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. He added that his biggest responsibility as the head of the Southern Boulevard BID will be to “protect the stores you have” by encouraging landlords to offer local businesses more favorable leases and by attracting new businesses, such as small restaurants, to help make shoppers want to stay around a while. In the current business climate that favors big chains over small operations, he said, it is important to get creative.
“All people who run BIDS should be concerned,” he said.