Trevor Thompson, a medical-device salesman, stood outside Montefiore Medical Center on East Gun Hill Road on a recent weekday afternoon, using a bright orange construction barrel as a makeshift table for his Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.
If there was a place where he could sit down to drink it, he would have. The Dunkin’ Donuts is takeout only.
Across the street, the VIP’s Cafe is shuttered. The diner, closed for about two years, used to be a mainstay for hospital workers and visitors.
“It’s a little surprising, considering the hospital,” Thompson said of coffee shops and cafes being in such short supply in the neighborhood.
The streets surrounding the hospital aren’t particularly welcoming to shoppers or people looking to grab a seat for a cup of coffee or a quick bite. The Jerome-Gun Hill Business Improvement District wants to entice businesses to open and to fill vacant properties. Challenges remain, though. Many of the properties are too small to be lucrative for chains or national brands. There are lingering concerns about the neighborhood’s safety and store owners struggle to compete with online retailers.
The majority of businesses within the Business Improvement District are convenience stores, delis and pizza places. Sprinkled in are a few Dominican and Mexican takeout restaurants, some discount retailers and hair and nail salons.
More restaurants and mid-priced women’s clothing stores are the things atop local wish lists, according to a 2017 BID survey of 175 hospital employees and nearby residents.
One size doesn’t fit all
Many of the vacant properties available for rent have been subdivided and are too small to accommodate a sit-down restaurant, said Jennifer Tausig, executive director of the BID.
The few properties already outfitted as restaurants can command about 10% more in rent, said Brandon Seidenberg, a licensed salesperson at Schuckman Realty Inc., who has sold multiple properties in the Bronx. That can make the rent too high for some potential tenants. Two storefronts big enough to accommodate full-service restaurants remain vacant because prior tenants are still paying rent and are the owners are not in a rush to fill the space, Tausig said.
Though crime rates in the neighborhood have declined over the past two decades, the perception of safety remains a concern for entrepreneurs in the Bronx, Seidenberg said: “From the perspective of someone who is running a business, if they’ve got five locations already and they aren’t in neighborhoods that are not as necessarily as sketchy, they may just say, ‘I don’t need the headache.’”
Melissa Vasquez, a supervisor at Club Valle, a recently opened Dominican restaurant on East Gun Hill Road, said safety is a significant concern for the family-owned business, which stays open until 11 p.m. “It’s kind of dangerous at night, you have to be careful,” Vasquez said.
Another priority for residents is a better selection of places like clothing stores.
“There is no women’s clothing in the whole neighborhood, they don’t have a place where you can buy a dress or a nice top. Everything is like $10 and you don’t want to wear that,” said Millie O’Keefe, 67, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 30 years.
Online shopping has put pressure on brick-and-mortar stores all over the city, said Jonathon Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, which conducts research on retail trends. “In particular clothing retailers are a tough go,” said Bowles.
What the BID is doing
Tausig, who took over as head of the district just over three years ago, has been working to diversify the types of businesses in the neighborhood. “We try and do creative things,” Tausig said.
The district hosts tours of vacant properties and breakfasts with real estate agents to highlight the neighborhood’s assets, like its proximity to Montefiore’s Moses Campus. “There’s 12,000 people that are in that building—essentially twenty-four, seven—and so I think most merchants see a real opportunity to market to the people that work there,” Tausig said.
The neighborhood is also home to North Central Bronx Hospital and numerous other Montefiore facilities. The district, which works closely with Montefiore, is managed by the Mosholu Preservation Corporation, a community development organization funded by Montefiore.
The vacancy rate within the district, which stretches just under a mile end to end, dropped from 7% in 2017 to under 4.5% in August 2018, when it was last measured. In 2019, 13 new businesses opened within the district, which encompasses Jerome Avenue between Mosholu Parkway and East 212th Street and East Gun Hill Road between Jerome and Webster Avenues.
The BID is working to attract the types of businesses that residents and hospital workers are asking for, but ultimately it is up to property owners.
“We can act as a connector,” said Tausig. “We put together some data to show why this is a good neighborhood to open a store in. But we don’t have any more power essentially to actually make it happen.”
How one business survives
The oldest shop in the neighborhood, E & N Pet Paradise on East Gun Hill Road, opened 46 years ago.
Inside, salsa music blares from the radio, birds roam free, squawking as the owner, Auggie Santana, 66, climbs into the rafters to re-capture them.
The small storefront, crammed with fish tanks and parrot cages, looks a bit like it’s frozen in time. It’s not. Santana has adopted new platforms to promote the business.
His son, Edgar, manages the shop’s Facebook and Instagram pages, which are filled with photos of pets for sale, customers and their new pets and home fish tanks Santana has installed.
“Everybody knows me, they call me the mayor of Gun Hill Road,” said Santana.
As a result, entrepreneurs looking to open up in the neighborhood often ask him for advice. High rent is the biggest deterrent for entrepreneurs looking to open up shop, he said. Santana pays around $2,000 a month for his approximately 750-square-foot storefront. Still, he encourages others to take the risk and open up.
The key to longevity is maintaining relationships with his customers, said Santana: “When you treat people nice, they recommend you and send you more customers.”