By Lynn Edmonds
When people think gentrification, they usually think housing.
But changes in the commercial sector can be felt just as powerfully.
In the past couple months, the Ditmars neighborhood in the heart of Astoria has seen a swath of shops open and close. Popular Greek Café Lefkos Pirgos on 23rd Avenue and 31st Street was replaced by Time Warner Cable; On Ditmars Boulevard the Greek seafood restaurant Okeanos shut up shop; Francis café is to be replaced with another restaurant; right next door restaurant The Blvd is under construction, gastropub The Pomeroy is near complete; Create, serving Quinoa bowls and “slamwiches,” opened; Friends Hair Salon was replaced by Coif; and while the pink awning of “The Candy Bar” next to PS 122 still promises candy and balloons, the window advertises boot camp classes.
One might wonder if new businesses catering toward young professionals might be edging out some of the older, and often Greek-themed establishments.
But others, like local real estate agent Thiago Pinto from Zikos Realty, believe its mainly underperforming businesses that are getting pushed out.
Okeanos, for instance? Some locals said it just wasn’t good enough to compete with the famous seafood restaurant across the street – Taverna Kyklades.
As for Lefkos Pirgos, the neighborhood mainstay named after the iconic white tower of Thessaloniki, simply moved down the block to 33rd Street and Ditmars Boulevard.
Regardless of the individual circumstances, however, it’s undeniable that plenty of commercial tenants are leaving, while others are moving in.
And that sparked some interesting reactions.
Someone posted a Burger King “coming soon” sign in empty storefront where Okeanos once stood, as well as a Home Depot sign in a closed hardware shop just two blocks over.
Other signs pasted on empty storefronts included a fake Donald Trump campaign sign, a poster advertising a concert by a mythical Greek vocalist, Tony Kliftonopoulis, and a sign for an “Astoria Needle Exchange.”
Reports and community leaders were not able to determine who was behind the spoofs, and what their intended message was.
In an interview with the Astoria Post, Community Board member Antonio Meloni said the signs were a “commentary on something – we don’t know quite what.”
Waves of Newcomers
This isn’t the first time the neighborhood has undergone changes in recent history. While the Greek immigrants from the 1960s and 1970s define Astoria for many, the neighborhood had a strong Italian flavor before that. It isn’t just Europeans that call the neighborhood home. Steinway houses “Little Egypt,” and many Latinos live in the neighborhood as well.
Michael Falsetta, a new development analyst and Executive Vice President at Miller Cicero, said the current wave of real estate interest and development in Astoria is the third, following one in the early 1990s and one in the 2000s.
Accompanying that interest is an increase in rents.
“I know for a fact that they are up significantly in the last three years,” Falsetta said.
He said the housing boom was a factor.
‘The retail in this neighborhood is being pulled along by the fact that there has been a lot of development,” Falsetta said.
Development, both retail and residential, under the N/Q “el” train on 31st Street “is a symbol of the pressure and lack of available land in the heart of the neighborhood,” he added.
“It’s very expensive. Five years ago it wasn’t that expensive,” he said.
Fillipides Prodromos, from the Pontion Society Komninoi, said he heard a rumor that the corner once occupied by Lefkos Pirgos – and replaced by Time Warner Cable – would be rented for $38,000 a month. That price would include the three additional storefronts adjacent to the old Lefkos Pirgos, which are owned by the same landlord as the former cafe. The rumored price was not confirmed.
The anecdote raises the question as to whether the neighborhood’s small businesses might be at risk. National chains are typically the only kind of businesses that can afford to pay such high rents. At some point, even those businesses can tap out, as Tim Wu, Professor and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor, reported for the New Yorker in May.
In May, Wu wrote about how “High-rent blight,” the New Yorker investigated why the thriving, expensive neighborhoods like Manhattan’s West Village can become plagued by empty storefronts, that may stay that way for years at a time.
“If you’re a landlord, why would you keep renting to a local café or restaurant at five thousand or ten thousand dollars a month when you might get twenty thousand or even forty thousand dollars a month from Chase?” Wu wrote.
Wu said that when corporate chains are able to outbid small businesses, the local economy suffers. “The area may become merely an importer of goods and services supplied by CVS or Dunkin’ Donuts,” he wrote, “local wealth isn’t created.”
Supporting Small Business
At the moment, Astoria doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed by either empty storefronts or national chains –despite the high turnover. But that is not to say that local small businesses don’t need support.
Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) said that he was focused on keeping rents affordable for small business owners and residents. So far, residential rents rather than commercial rents have been the overwhelming concern.
“It’s the number one call that I get in my district – by far – not even close,” he stressed.
But Constantinides said rising rents affect small businesses too.
“The issue of commercial rents, the issue of affordability is wide-spread, it’s about commercial rent, and about residential,” he said, adding that his office would be focusing on the issue.
The Councilman said he allocated $22,000 from the City Council’s Neighborhood Development Grant initiative toward maintaining and supporting businesses on the Steinway Street strip, which runs perpendicular to Ditmars, about ten blocks east of the N/Q subway line.
He said that that despite affordability issues, it was a great time for small businesses on Ditmars.
“Small businesses are growing at a very rapid pace,” Constantinides said, citing the examples of local businesses that took off like 60 Beans, Bare Burger, Brooklyn Bagel, The Bonnie, The Thirsty Koala and Tru.
“We’re seeing a lot of really interesting restaurants popping up on Ditmars,” he said, “It’s just a matter of making sure we have the services to support them.”
Constantinides even noted that some of the chains, like CVS and Fabco, had closed or been replaced with local shops.
Falsetta noted that Ditmars Boulevard businesses are still heterogenous. “There’s a real mixed bag of stuff there,” he said. But he predicted upstart businesses might end up concentrating under the train, or in less commercially developed parts of Astoria, like 14th Street, or 21st street, if rents keep rising.
Florence Koulouris, district manager at Community Board 1, echoed the sentiment that small businesses were thriving in the neighborhood.
“Right now Astoria’s the hottest place; it’s the center of the universe,” she said. “Ditmars is growing by leaps and bounds, and has a lot to offer someone who is interested in coming into Astoria, because it’s fresh, it’s new, and it’s reinventing itself.”
Koulouris said the changes benefited both residents and business owners looking for a new location.
“Astoria right now is a win-win,” she said.
Asked about the danger of older businesses being priced out, she said she wanted to focus on the positive. She also dismissed concerns that the neighborhood was losing its authentic Greek character.
“We have every single ethnic group here. It’s not like the 60s and the 70s when you have groups of one. You see a co-mingling of everyone, and we like it that way,” Koulouris said.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana