Broadway, The Heart of Elmhurst, is Confronted with Gentrification

For decades, Broadway – often referred to as the heart of Elmhurst – has been lined with one-story immigrant-owned businesses. Today, its streets are in transition aesthetically and economically, and businesses and residents are finding it difficult to secure their places on the new Broadway that Pi Capital Partners is developing.

Brickfront to glassfront developments on Broadway

Brick-front to glass-front developments line Broadway

 

As you walk up Broadway toward Queens Boulevard, both sides of the street are lined with one-story brick storefronts: Mid-Wood Deli, Gino’s Pizza, Wireless Communications Center and Lucky You 123. On the east side of Broadway, these brick storefronts give way to glassfront franchises: Starbucks, Subway, Carvel, Coco Bubble Tea, and the shells of where Iris Bakery and Sweet Spot Pharmacy used to be. While across the street, bright blue construction boards have replaced the brick storefronts where Wendy’s used to be, and where The Elm West – the East’s sister development – will soon rise.

 

Pointing to the construction neighboring his establishment, Kuldeep Adhi, 10-year owner of Wireless Communications Center said, “They’re going to open 10 more stores, and that’ll be 20 new stores on this street paying above-market rent. My landlord may increase ours to match that.” This is a scenario he cannot afford, he says.

 

Elmhurst managed to stay under the radar of gentrifying developers for decades. But in the last few years, Elmhurst’s housing market met two new condo developments – the Miramar and C Condo – and in 2012, it met its third residential development – The East Elm, this one courtesy of Pi Capital Partners. This six-story, mixed-use residential and commercial development is home to 83 luxury rental apartments, with stores for rent on the street level.

 

The Elm East — as photographed on elmrentals.com

 

“This is a brand new building, new businesses – a Starbucks,” said Jim Chew, 27, who moved to Elm East from New Jersey in 2012. “People like new,” he said. His building is seducing newcomers.

 

According to Adhi, these newcomers overcrowd neighborhood parking. But across the street, Kevin Colin, an employee at Coco Bubble Tea housed under The Elm East, sees the increased population as a positive product of increased job, housing and business opportunities.

 

Some longtime storeowners also welcome neighborhood growth.

 

“The Elm brings us more traffic,” said Oscar Caicedo, 40-year owner of Gino’s Pizzeria. That’s fine with him, he says, “as long as another pizzeria doesn’t come.”

 

The prospect of competitors opening in The Elm West is also a concern for the new stores that have moved into Elm East.

 

“I hope they don’t open any restaurants because our business will be slow,” said Mahi Tal, a Subway employee in The Elm East.

 

And increased business opportunities introduce the possibility of big businesses moving onto Broadway.

 

“We can’t compete with franchises,” said the owner of the brickfront Mid-Wood Deli Grocery, who requested anonymity because he is a neighbor of The Elm. “If tomorrow, Whole Foods comes in, I’m out. If the Donald Trumps come here and want to build, what can you do?”

 

The Pis purchased The Elm East property in 2002 and The Elm West property in 2004 with the goal of developing the intersection of Broadway and Queens Boulevard into one of the most visited hubs in Queens. In 2012, The Elm East opened to renters. The lure of the luxury developments is its quick subway ride into and out of Manhattan.

 

“This is not about the neighborhood,” said the Mid-Wood Deli owner. “People who can afford luxury will come from other places. Those who can’t move out.”

Iris Bakery Closed 5/1/2014

Iris Bakery Closed 5/1/2014

 

Iris Bakery opened in July 2013 on the ground level of The Elm East. Today, a sign taped to its door reads: “This location will be closed on 5/1/2014. Please go to the Flushing store.” Next to it, sits an empty glass storefront yet to be rented. Further down the block, at the corner, Sweet Spot Pharmacy’s glassfront has sat dark and vacant since March 2014. Sustainability on Broadway and Queens Boulevard is taking on a new, more expensive, and more competitive meaning.

 

Speaking of Iris Bakery’s closing, a Starbucks barista housed in The Elm East said, “It wasn’t smart to move next to a Starbucks. We sell pastries and we’re known for it.”

 

As for older Elmhurst residents securing space on this new Broadway:

 

“I can’t afford to live here,” said Debbie Fitz, 57, of Elmhurst. “From what I can see, Asians can though,” noting the changing demographics of the block.

 

Others shrug off The Elm’s unaffordability as NYC living.

 

“I’m struggling to pay my rent, but this is what living in NYC is about,” said Khyati Joshi, a resident of the next apartment complex over. “Adapt or go.”

 

Standing beside The Elm East and staring at the Elm West’s construction across the street, Francisco Dani, an Elmhurst resident and retired volunteer at Interfaith Chapel said, “I’m looking at the future.”

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Behind the Scenes of Fire-Escape Burglaries in Elmhurst

You enter your apartment. Clothes are in disarray, lamps are overturned, drawers are thrown out of their chests, pots and pans are on the floor.

 

“Then you see that the fire escape window is open,” said Officer Thompson Wen, Crime Prevention Officer at the 110th Precinct of Elmhurst and Corona.

 

Although Wen couldn’t detail any specifics of the confidential cases reported to the precinct, he painted a general picture of the fire escape burglary crime trend instead. “This is what I hear from victims all the time. It’s nothing new,” he said.

 

Fire escapes and windows are just another method of entry, explained Wen, and this method of entry is a crime trend that has been on the rise in Elmhurst and Corona this winter.

 

During the winter, residents go on vacation, leaving their homes unoccupied. Some leave their windows open to air out stuffy, heated apartments. That leaves windows vulnerable, explained Wen.

 

The 110th Precinct oversees a densely populated, residential and commercial community. Most people live in apartment complexes. In communities like these, burglary and serial burglary by way of fire escapes happen all the time, according to Wen.

 

Before going through the extensive list of safety tips that he’d updated one year ago, Officer Wen paused to search files to produce the date of the last fire escape burglary reported: March 20, 2014.

 

This burglary was one of four reported that week to the precinct. In two of the four, the thieves used the fire escape to get to a rear window.

 

 

110 PRECINCT BURGLARY ALERT” read flyers that are handed to inquirers at the precinct, and distributed throughout the community – hung up in apartment buildings and public spaces – or delivered personally by police officers who provide free in-home safeguarding surveys to any requesters.

 

“A lot of the time in densely populated immigrant communities like Elmhurst and Corona, people don’t know what’s going on,” said Wen. “People move in and out of the neighborhood, people don’t speak to their neighbors.”

 

For those who don’t face language barriers, and are aware of their neighborhood’s crime trends, Wen explains that “some are willing to spend the money to safeguard their homes, some aren’t.”

 

Supplementing the message of “Don’t become a victim” with the details of how not to become a victim, Wen outlines a few safety tips.

 

“Criminals are afraid of two things: noise and light,” said Wen, urging Elmhurst and Corona residents to invest in alarm systems, drapes for windows, properly functioning door and window locks, peep holes and in the cases of fire-escape proofing, an FDNY-approved “Ferry” or Safety Gate, which can cost around $300, according to Officer Wen.

 

“Think about it this way: if one person comes in and burglarizes your home, you’re going to lose more than that, including your peace of mind, sense of safety and your property,” said Officer Wen.

 

NYPD’s Crime Prevention tips can be found online: http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/crime_prevention/safeguardapt.shtml

Delayed Community Response in the Willets Point Development Debate

Willets Point Development Plan, Aerial View

Willets Point Development Plan, Aerial View

After an hour and 15 minutes of facing forward and keeping quiet, Ben Haber stood up and walked to the front of the room just as Community Board Chairperson Louis Walker – with a booming voice – moved to “open the floor to the community.” Standing in the spot where Councilmember Julissa Ferreras stood to address the community earlier that night, Haber said what nobody else wanted to say an hour and 15 minutes ago.

“How many people think a $1.4 million mall is a good idea in our community?” Haber of Flushing, Queens asked the meeting attendees.

The shuffle of people gathering their belongings stopped. “No one,” Haber answered. “That mall will destroy our small businesses.” And with the floor open, community member after member sung similar, frustrated stories.

The onslaught of rejection of the “$1.4 million mall” at the March 11, 2014 Community Board 4 meeting though, completely missed Councilmember Julissa Ferreras’ ears. Ferreras left the meeting soon after she updated attendees on the details of the 2008 Willets Point Development Plan, concluding to a congratulatory audience: “This is our deal for our community. Take a copy and put it in your bookcases.”

Joseph Ardizzone, a Willets Point resident of 81 years, like many other community members disagreed.

“Everything is done in the dark,” said Ardizzone. “The deception from our government is a shame. Everyone’s property is being taken away and when we get up to reject new malls and business relocations at meetings, they only give us two minutes to speak.”

Willets Point Development Plan, Mall Street View

Willets Point Development Plan, Mall Street View

The “new mall” that is subject in the Willets Point community is, according to Ferreras, a new addition to the multi-faceted 2008 Willets Point Development Plan agreed upon by the City of New York, the Queens Development Group, and Councilmember Ferreras. And as this mall was agreed upon, Community Board 4 members – who were not included in the planning of this new addition – rejected it.

Ferreras accepted the stern meeting invitations by Community Board 4 members, and on March 11, 2014 attendees filed in through the open door of the Community Center, overflowing into standing space in the back of the room. At 7:55 p.m., Councilmember Ferreras stood up to face the community.

The questions, criticisms and frustrations that were spit-fired one after another to her representative, Joel Trinidad Santos, last month, were replaced this meeting by applause, smiles and congratulations.

The community’s disapproval was postponed until the end of the meeting when Ferreras had already departed.

Joseph Ardizzone, waiting at the front wall to hold up the two large banners in his hands, was ready to state his claim to a Ferreras-less audience. He opened his posters and attendees read the capitalized message:

CITY’S BROKEN PROMISES:

HELEN MARSHALL’S ADVISORY COMMITTEE
EXCLUDED FROM
WILLETS POINT DEVELOPER SELECTION
AND CHOICE TO ADD LARGE MALL

20140311_211814Cameras flashed in the audience, and among the picture-takers was Arturo Olaya, 34-year owner of Artur’s Auto Trim Shop in Willets Point, who took the floor next.

“They promised us seven years ago a clustered relocation of our businesses,” said Olaya. “We are a minority and the city chose to be negligent.”

And with the word “negligent” lingering in the air of the Community Center, and with no other residents wanting to speak, Board members moved to close the meeting.

When reflecting on the last two hours, Haber said after the meeting, “No one raised a question when Ferreras was here. An apathetic public is a mediocre politician’s best friend.”

To the years of criticism of the Willets Point Plan, Joselin Geira, Chief of Staff of Councilmember Ferreras, who also attended this meeting said, “This plan reflects the fight that we fought for this community and of course there some are going to be dissatisfied. There are several constituents.”

Empanada Takeover in Queens — Just Like Mama Used to Make It

Take three steps into Mama’s Empanadas in Elmhurst, Queens and you are practically inside the kitchen. The sizzle of deep-frying, fresh, never-frozen empanadas fills the “L” shaped walk-thru establishment. Customers scan blue typewritten names and descriptions of empanada creation after empanada creation listed across an illuminated yellow menu. Corn patties, wheat patties, dessert patties and breakfast patties: the menu offers more than enough mouth-watering reading material to anyone navigating Mama’s Empanadas’ 50 plus flavors.

 

“Order 145!” cashier Joy Herrera calls.

 

The crowd shifts around the high silver counters where Herrera stands, holding up steaming brown paper bags. Just as soon as one is served, three more orders come in through the door.

 

Simply put, Mama’s Empanadas is “pretty popular,” said Javier Garcia, 47, of Queens, NY and founder and owner of Mama’s Empanadas. Beginning as an entrepreneurial passion born out his Cuban mother’s kitchen, Mama’s has quickly swept through Queens as a fast-food empanada sensation, installing their signature ever-expanding bright yellow menus and low-prices in five locations throughout the borough.

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“They keep changing the game with the variety they offer,” said David Arteaga, 20, of Maspeth. “Their menu keeps getting bigger, tastier and funner.”

 

Mama’s newest addition, the $1.75 Chicken Fajita with Cheese, was an instant knockout.

 

“We get creative,” explained Garcia; and in response to the possibility of any new flavors being in the works, Garcia replied, “you never know.”

 

Garcia is no stranger to the story of “you never know.” Working as a banker after graduating with a finance degree from Baruch College, Garcia quit in 2001 to “do something entrepreneurial.” He now oversees the five-location Mama’s Empanadas operation that made its home in Queens.

 

Born in Spain to a Spanish father and a Cuban mother, Garcia tapped into the inspiration that’s been simmering in his childhood kitchen. He and his mom, Anna Maria Garcia, teamed up in 2001 to birth Mama’s Empanadas.

 

“’Mama’s’ and ‘empanadas’ rhyme,” said Garcia, explaining the name. “But most importantly, both words are understood in Spanish and English. It’s great for bilingual communities.”

 

And Elmhurst, Queens is certainly a bilingual community. In 2005, Mama’s marked its territory in Elmhurst.

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Standing directly across from Queens Center Mall, this location enjoys a “very fast-paced” flow of traffic, according to Herrera, 18, of Jamaica. “People are in and out from school, work, and the mall. It’s convenient.”

 

Kimberly Rojas, 20, of Jackson Heights, NY quickly agreed. “I basically live inside this place,” Rojas said.

 

A downside to this central hub location is cost, according to Garcia.

 

“In that area, the square footage is probably more expensive than the cost of rent in Times Square,” he said, explaining the compact size of the Elmhurst location.

 

Nonetheless, Mama’s prides itself on keeping costs low, quality high and service fast.

 

“The price for the product, you know you can’t beat it,” said Garcia. “If you go in the mall, you’ll pay $4 for a pizza slice. At Mama’s, you can get three or four empanadas for that price.”

 

Back in the Elmhurst restaurant, the empanada sizzle competes with Herrera’s calls over the growing crowd.

 

“Order 189!”