It would be hard not to notice the large "Store for Rent" signs filling some of the windows on Johnson Avenue between West 235th and West 236th streets.
What ever happened to M & M Bakery? Josepina restaurant? Han's Laundromat?
The answer given by several of these ex-Johnson Avenue shop owners is simple and familiar: the rent is too damn high.
There are 13 storefronts on each side of Johnson Avenue between West 235th and West 236th streets, two of them empty on each side. Under the four "Store for Rent" signs on Johnson Avenue and one around the corner on West 235th Street is a number to call for rentals and a now infamous name: Friedland Properties.
Brothers Lawrence and Melvin Friedland, who come from a family of investment property owners dating back to the 1930s, founded the company in 1960. On its website, the company boasts of being the “largest landlord on the gold coast of Madison Avenue” and of owning more than 100 properties on the East Coast.
Included in that number is the retail space of roughly 30 storefronts in the Johnson Avenue shopping area and many believe that blame for those that are shuttered falls squarely on Friedland Properties. The problem of shuttered storefronts that once plagued Riverdale Avenue seems to have migrated west and the businesses that once filled them, east.
Han Heeja, owner of the former Han’s Laundromat, decided to move from Johnson to Riverdale Avenue and open Riverdale Laundromat after Friedland’s rent became too much to bear. She originally signed a 10-year lease for the space but when it was up she said she was hit with a 90 percent increase.
After some grappling, she decided not to move the washers and dryers and to extend the lease for another four years. When that lease was expiring, she said Friedland asked for an additional 50 percent rent increase to extend it. Amidst mounds of laundry bags filled with clothes, she mused from Riverdale Avenue that moving was a good decision.
At the end of September, M & M Kosher Bakery closed its doors and owner Ellyn Kaplan brought her cookies and cakes to her cousin’s shop. Together, they operate the Caffecino Bakery, located at 269 W. 231st St.
Though Ms. Kaplan would not go into details about money, she said that Friedland almost doubled her rent when her lease was up and refused to negotiate the cost. She was forced to leave, she said.
“He’s an awful human being. He’s alienating Riverdale,” she said of Lawrence Friedland.
Aria, a salon once located on West 235th Street around the corner from Johnson Avenue, is also no longer. The owner now co-owns Salon Zoe on Riverdale Avenue. The owner could not be reached for comment.
The building formerly occupied by a Washington Mutual Bank at the intersection of West 236th Street also stands empty. When the bank filed for bankruptcy, JP Morgan Chase took over, but since there is already a Chase on the block and nobody has rented the space, it remains shuttered.
More to come?
This may be just the beginning. The owner of Corner Café, the popular eatery located on the corner of Johnson Avenue and West 236th Street, recently purchased the space formerly occupied by Paperbacks Plus on Riverdale Avenue. It is unclear whether the business will shut down its Johnson Avenue location.
When asked about the empty storefronts in Johnson Avenue, an employee of Friedland who asked not to be named said huge hikes in real estate taxes over the years have hurt, small businesses.
“Across the board the taxes have hurt a lot of the small guys. They can’t absorb it,” he said.
But owners say that while real estate taxes have hurt, the jacked up rent is what forced them to leave the strip. Most of the storeowners who left Johnson Avenue moved their businesses or went into co-ownership within the same tax zone in Riverdale.
“He’s a very inconsiderate landlord who really doesn’t care whether you stay open or not,” said one storeowner on Johnson Avenue, who asked not to be named, “It’s like signing a contract with the devil.” The storeowner said the increases in rent “could be the difference between red and black” in this economy.
Once a village
Brad Trebach, a lawyer and broker of Trebach Realty, who keeps tabs on the real estate changes in the area, said he believes the going monthly rate for shops on the east side of Riverdale Avenue is approximately $4 to $4.50 per square foot. Friedland’s website currently has listings for three storefronts on Johnson Avenue with asking prices of approximately $6 per square foot.
Mr. Trebach speculated that greater competition from multiple owners on Riverdale Avenue might account for the price discrepancy with similar locations on Johnson Avenue, with properties owned exclusively by Friedland.
“They’re massive. In that respect they might have deeper pockets and more of a tolerance for vacancies than smaller landlords in Riverdale,” he said.
Martha Alveo opened Mel’s Boutique at 3720 Riverdale Ave. earlier this year after inquiring about one of the empty storefronts on Johnson Avenue. She said that for a place equivalent in size to the one she currently occupies, Friedland asked for $6,000 per month and would not budge on a 12-year lease. Instead, she found a space for $1,800 per month on a 5-year lease on Riverdale Avenue.
M & M Kosher Bakery’s Ms. Kaplan, who grew up in Riverdale, said she still makes a special effort to spend money at the shops on Johnson Avenue, but it’s hard to see her storefront empty.
“I look over and my heart breaks,” she said, “We really miss it. We miss it a lot.”
Chris Katechis, co-owner of 35-year-old Blue Bay, the longest running shop in the Friedland-owned Johnson Avenue, remembers a time before Friedland, who started buying up properties on his side of the street in 1978.
“This used to be like a village,” he said. Mr. Katechis said people used to come to the area for variety. He said he remembers when he knew everyone on the block, whether hardware or clothing storeowners. The majority of the shops are now restaurants.
Mr. Katechis said his lease is up in a year and a half and does not know what will happen then.