This is the second part of a three-part series. Click here to read the introduction.
Roy Henley signed a lease to open Bierstrasse, a family-friendly beer garden, in Nov. 2015. He built the restaurant from scratch with his wife and his brother, a steel fabricator. His brother welded the frames for the tables, and together, frame by frame, the brothers screwed on each wooden plank. For the centerpiece of the restaurant, they made a bar out of a large piece of wood that was thrown out from a brownstone being renovated on 146th Street.
It took six months for Henley and his family to finish the beer garden. They were immensely proud of their work.
“I was there every day during construction … I knew every corner of that space ‘cause I built it,” he said.
At Bierstrasse’s height, Henley said he employed about 50 bartenders, servers, cooks, and dishwashers. At its busiest, the beer garden could have around 700 to 800 people inside. Henley hosted events for the City College of New York and held the West Harlem Jazz Festival, a free event that featured big names from the New York City jazz community.
But in Sept. 2019, Henley was forced to close his restaurant. He expected the summer of 2019 to bring him customers who were passing by his 12th Avenue location on the way to the West Harlem Piers and the Hudson River Greenway, a picturesque park that is especially popular during the warmer seasons. But last summer was different, and foot traffic was sparse.
In 2015, Henley and his family created Bierstrasse from the bottom up.
In 2019, they were forced to abandon it.
When Henley signed his lease in 2015, Columbia had not yet released a scheduled completion date for the Business School, just two blocks away from his restaurant. He did not think that it would take six years for the building to be completed. After all, the site was already cleared, and the University had made quick progress on its other Manhattanville buildings. When he realized that he was going to be located in a construction zone for far longer than he expected, he began attending small meetings with Columbia and other community members.
Henley wasn’t alone: A neighboring restaurant closed its doors the following month.
Julie Grunberger and Karl Franz Williams opened Solomon and Kuff, a rum hall and Caribbean restaurant, across the street from Bierstrasse in Dec. 2015. They also closed down in Sept. 2019, with expenses that were too high and profits too low.
Like Henley, Grunberger said that they hoped to get a bump in business from the Columbia community. They thought being a few blocks away would make them attractive to Columbia affiliates for lunch, dinner, or drinks, but instead, the construction worked to further isolate them.
Grunberger and Williams also attended meetings with Columbia where they sought help from the University. There were suggestions to form a 12th Avenue business alliance, but plans never materialized. Grunberger said it was impossible for her and Williams to try to coordinate a coalition while running their restaurant.
They also hoped to access money from the Community Benefits Agreement or receive assistance from the University since they were in the direct vicinity of the Manhattanville campus construction. But nothing materialized out of those meetings, Grunberger said.
She thought if Columbia had done something to prevent them from closing, it would be a win-win situation: Her business stays open, and the neighborhood surrounding Columbia’s new campus becomes livelier. Now the retail space sits vacant, further discouraging pedestrians from walking through Columbia’s construction to 12th Avenue and adding to the already isolated and empty area.
“Maybe Columbia could’ve kicked in something, or committed to give us X amount of business per month,” she said. “But we got nothing. And consequently that area is now complete no man’s land.”
Waiting out the storm
Henley attributed the decline in foot traffic to the ongoing construction of the Manhattanville campus, which has shifted pedestrians’ perception of the area.
“If you have construction going on, major construction like with what’s going on at Columbia, people don’t want to walk down there. They don’t,” he said.
Henley, like all other business owners in the vicinity of the Manhattanville construction, was waiting on an influx of customers from the opening of the campus. He attempted to wait out the construction despite his failing profits, putting more and more money into his restaurant to continue to stay afloat. But the costs became too much.
“If anything, it cost us even more money to sustain the profit, to—for lack of a better term—kick the can down the down the street, hoping that by the time we got further down the street, that Columbia would be open and that all of a sudden the neighborhood would pick up.”
Henley said he expressed to Columbia representatives that his business was under pressure. He was advised to reach out to the West Harlem Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization created to regulate and distribute CBA money to the community. But the WHDC has only given money to nonprofits, excluding for-profit businesses that were directly affected by Columbia’s construction.
Henley, who is now in debt and fighting a lawsuit regarding Bierstrasse’s taxes, laments the thousands he lost between the buildout, labor, and rent for his restaurant. With two small children at home, Henley said he wants to move on from what had happened.
“It’s tough when you start something off and you carry something on your back for such a long period of time. When the time comes and you decide to close, it’s a tough decision. It’s tough to get the words out of your mouth,” he said. “It’s tough for me to say 12th Avenue just didn’t go the way we wanted. It never took off. The seeds that were planted never grew up to be a nice fruit or a nice tree.”
New kid on the block
John Greco III, a renowned restaurateur, is a newcomer to 12th Avenue. He opened 123BSB, a sports bar and burger joint, in Aug. 2019 after a nine-year search for a spot in Manhattanville to start his new restaurant. When he decided in spring 2018 to build on 125th street and 12th Avenue, he did not know how long the neighborhood would be under construction. What he did know was that the location had breathtaking views of the Hudson River.
Back then, the avenue was livelier, he said. Bierstrasse and Solomon and Kuff were open, attracting more people to the avenue, and Columbia was planning to open its new campus just across the street.
As a native New Yorker, Greco remembered the days when he could not walk down 12th Avenue because it was undeveloped. But things had changed. What had once been an industrial area looked like an up-and-coming neighborhood.
He decided to take the risk and used his two children’s college funds to invest in his dream.
“My wife said I was crazy. But I believe in this neighborhood, so I took their college funds to put it in here because I saw that Columbia University is a very positive entity here.”
He did not realize the effects the Manhattanville campus construction would have on the corridor. The isolation from busier streets, like Broadway, had led Bierstrasse and Solomon and Kuff to close because of financial problems. Prior to that, Phuket, a Thai restaurant, and Trattoria, a pizzaria, shut their doors. Now with only three restaurants left, the area has struggled to keep its status as a restaurant destination, and 123BSB is struggling to stay afloat.
“There [were] more things here,” he said. “But now you have construction signs. So, now with all the construction sites and all the no parking signs, the foot traffic has shrunk.”
Despite 123BSB being open for only seven months, he thought he would be doing better by now. To make up for the lack of foot traffic, he is investing in more advertising.
“People don’t realize that we’re in a dead area for 10 blocks,” he said, referring to the expanse of 12th Avenue from 125th Street to 138th Street. “And now I have to spend money on people taking flyers past Broadway to tell people I’m here.”
Maritta Dunn, a CB9 member, shared the sentiment stating that the Manhattanville area is not conducive for retail business to begin with.
“It isn’t even that accessible. … Everything is up a steep hill, ain’t nothing is level in Manhattanville,” Dunn said. “[Only one] bus … runs along here. One. If you run along Amsterdam Avenue you have three or four buses.”
Kaaryn Simmons, the director of Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, began doing research on the effects of large construction projects on small businesses in New York about two years ago. She said she saw what was about to happen with businesses on 12th Avenue, since communities that undergo large transformations often face disruptions. But, newcomers to the area had little idea of what was to come.
According to Ray Bromley, a professor emeritus in geography and planning at the State University of New York, Albany, who has researched the relationship between a university and its local communities, expansion projects in high density areas have a large impact. By expanding to the 12th Avenue corridor, the area will be less accessible to low and middle income residents, which will further mark out the area as a destination location, Bromley said.
He added the University, though not required to uphold communication with these businesses, could do more to ensure the expansion project is not negatively impacting community stakeholders.
“The general assumption of university-community partnership is that the University liaises with those organizations and tries to negotiate a situation in which the disruption is minimized, and any specific groups who lose out are in one sense or another compensated or helped out,” Bromley said.
For example, he said, if construction removes parking spots, the University should consider making temporary replacements available.
Greco said he was optimistic that the opening of the Business School will bring new customers, but he too is worried about what will happen until then.
“My goal is to hold out. I would love Columbia to come down and you know eat some of my food, you know, or have an event at my space, but I’m sure that they will,” Greco said.
Continue reading Part 3, in which key stakeholders describe how to save 12th Avenue and brace for the next stages of Columbia’s development.