Columbus Square has welcomed a new tenant—and it’s one of the development’s first locally owned businesses.
Rookie USA, a sporting goods store for children, will hold its grand opening at 808 Columbus Ave. with a kick-off event Friday featuring New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. It is a milestone for the mixed-use development project, which, with its sleek residential high-rises lining the repaved superblock spanning Columbus Avenue from 97th to 100th streets, has dramatically changed the look of the neighborhood.
Kelly Gedinsky, an associate director with Columbus Square developer Winick Realty, says that the store, which opened in August, adds a local touch to a strip that is home to national chains like Whole Foods, Modell’s, and T.J. Maxx.
The closest thing Columbus Square has to a local business is a Crumbs Bake Shop branch at 98th Street. While Crumbs started as a single bakery on the Upper West Side, it now has more than 50 stores across the country. Rookie, a “children’s concept that is only carrying Nike products,” is run by two Brooklyn men, Gedinsky said. “We thought that this was a really exciting, locally geared tenant who services the neighborhood as well.”
Rookie’s selection marks Winick’s fulfillment of a promise to include local and small businesses in the site, which up until now had been few and far between. While locally owned, Rookie refers to the Columbus Square location as its flagship store and says on its website it plans to open more branches.
In January 2011, Winick said it would be focusing on developing more local retail in the area. “The area is demanding small business and we have space small enough to accommodate them,” Gedinsky said at the time.
Now, vacancies remain, especially on the empty row of properties between 99th and 100th streets on Amsterdam Avenue.
Gedinsky said that Winick was looking at how it might adjust the vacant properties to make them more convenient for potential tenants.
“We’re hoping to add additional elements and amenities to the spaces,” Gedinsky said on Tuesday. “Now that we have smaller space and we’ve investigated further divisions of some of our smaller spaces, we have flexibility to encourage those who have a smaller floor plate to come and work with us.”
Gedinsky said that the availability of a variety of store sizes would be more appealing to small businesses. “In certain scenarios they might not have thought that we had the flexibility in terms of retail store size that could work with them,” she said.
A changing landscape
In a neighborhood that values its mom and pops, locals say that the development has affected already-existing small businesses.
Anne Cottavoz, the owner of Columbus Natural Food on 96th Street, is a longtime critic of the retail development. While her store is still standing, she said she was uncertain about what the future holds.
“My lease is up next year, so I don’t know how it’s going to be playing out here,” she said, worried that her rent would be driven up by her new neighbors.
Cottavoz, who has been in the business for 20 years, says that to keep customers, she has been prioritizing free delivery, freshly cooked food, organic produce, and low prices.
“We have these additional services, and the quality, so we have a steady clientele,” she said. “It’s not what it used to be, but it’s OK. But I won’t be able to afford a rent hike of significance.”
Murray Rosen, manager of Columbus Wines & Spirits, which has operated at Columbus and 96th Street for over 25 years, has a similar outlook.
“Our business has been flat,” he said. “And in this economic climate, that’s an accomplishment in itself.”
With the new Whole Foods Wine Store down the street, Rosen has had to make adjustments to his business model to stay competitive. He says that while he used to cater to an older customer—what he called the “dark spirits” clientele—the new residential units have changed the demographics of the area.
“A particular type of young professional can afford to live here now, so the diversity has diminished,” he said.
But gentrification and big-box retail have brought in new shoppers from beyond the neighborhood—a plus in Rosen’s book.
“People from West End Avenue, Riverside Drive, typically do not come over here to shop,” Rosen said. “So Whole Foods has in fact attracted people beyond our geographic area and to the extent that they come over here, some percentage has discovered us.”
Peter Arndsten, director of the Columbus/Amsterdam Business Improvement District, which includes Columbus Square, agrees that the draw of the retail corridor has given neighboring blocks renewed pedestrian traffic.
“It is something of an island,” Arndsten said. “To get there, people have to come over to Broadway or come from the south, and that’s always a positive thing.”
Sense of place
Residents out shopping last weekend were pleased with the new stores. Vivian Rosenberg, who has lived a block from the present Columbus Square site since 1979, said that she was thrilled with how the project has turned out.
“I just see more activity. I have much better shopping. I just love Whole Foods and Crumbs and having the drug store nearby,” Rosenberg said. “It’s wonderful to be able to shop in the neighborhood—there are a lot more people here so it’s not so quiet and dark at night.”
Rhonda Braxton, another longtime resident, said that she is also glad to see the increased commercial activity, but that she has concerns about how the stores have affected local business.
“It really is, I think, a loss to the community that there are so many big box stores and not as many independently owned businesses,” Braxton said.
A former small-business owner, Braxton said that in 2005 she had to close down her store, which was further downtown, when rents became unaffordable. Small businesses could give the area a sense of place, she said.
“In general there is a consensus amongst my friends about concerns with how many drug stores there are on every corner, the lack of small businesses, what’s happening to the community,” she said.
Arndsten also stressed the importance of small businesses.
“Having a meeting place, a coffee shop, was always really positive, and I’m not sure if Starbucks has filled that yet,” Arndsten said. “They might be able to, but that remains to be seen.”