Despite NYC Vacancy Crisis, Austin Street Businesses Hold On

7134 Austin St, Forest Hills, NY 11375 |

FOREST HILLS, QUEENS — The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic could mean a retail apocalypse for New York City. Some commercial corridors, particularly in Manhattan, are already suffering, and industry players say one-third of the city’s small businesses may never reopen.

But a major thoroughfare in Forest Hills seems to have been spared the devastation — at least for now.

Along Austin Street, just a dozen of more than 150 storefronts are vacant. Several were empty even before the pandemic. Another half-dozen retail spaces have new businesses preparing to open.

The eight blocks from Ascan Avenue to Yellowstone Boulevard were relatively bustling with midday shoppers and outdoor diners around lunchtime on a recent weekday.

To shed light on the extent of New York City’s retail vacancy crisis in the pandemic, Patch surveyed several commercial corridors across the city. From Park Slope to Harlem, major commercial drags had dozens of empty storefronts and vacancy rates in the double digits.

 Austin Street was an outlier.

“People are still coming here,” Leslie Brown, the head of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, told Patch. “They have relationships. It’s almost like a small community. Small businesses have relationships with their customers.”

Brown attributed Austin Street’s relative success to its location, which is nearby four subway lines, express and local bus stops and a Long Island Rail Road station.

And with many New Yorkers working remotely, they have more opportunities to frequent the businesses in their home neighborhoods, whether for a weekday lunch or running errands.

“In Manhattan they’re greatly affected by the fact that office workers and tourists are not there for now.” Brown said.

Brown also noted that some business owners were able to reach agreements with their landlords to pay lower rents. In some cases, though Brown declined to name specific businesses, owners are paying half what they did previously.

Rent concessions are likely a major boon for small business owners, who have largely exhausted the government resources made available to them.

Local politicians have floated a number of measures to ease the burden on businesses, especially during the pandemic.

One State Senate bill to reduce rent payments for business tenants has drawn a number of co-sponsors but has not reached the full Senate for a vote.

Another proposal, called “COVID-19 Recovery Leases,” would offer property tax relief to landlords who negotiate new, affordable leases that forgive or disperse arrears and cap annual rent increases.

The city will soon be able to quantify the issue. Last year, a bill to create a citywide database of empty storefronts passed after being backed more than a dozen City Council members. The database is set to go live in February 2021.

Even Austin Street hasn’t been entirely immune from the city’s retail vacancy crisis.

Hinoki Japanese Restaurant, Housing Works and the chain Victoria’s Secret are among the businesses that have given up their Austin Street storefronts since the start of the pandemic.

A few storefronts are closed temporarily.

In at least four spaces, work permits and “coming soon” signs preview businesses to come.

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