STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – It’s been five years since Toys R Us closed up shop in New Springville, leaving a massive 39,000-square foot hole in Richmond Avenue’s retail landscape. Two years since Shop Rite vacated its former home at 2424 Hylan Blvd. to start anew at the Boulevard, and approximately one year since SuperFresh shuttered at Amboy Road and Greaves Lane.
The spaces are still vacant, and Staten Island residents are still waiting for new retail experiences to fill their void. But will that ever happen?
“Retail space is shrinking across the country because brick-and-mortar business is struggling and people are not shopping the same way they used to,” noted Angelo Pappalardo, broker and president of Century 21 Papp Realty in Castleton Corners. “But I’m not worried about Staten Island. We have a population density that will attract other commercial tenants. The issue at hand is what commercial tenants will have the longevity to stay.”
These large vacancies are just a sampling of the borough’s retail hole – hundreds of smaller shops and brands have exited over the past few years too, broken by COVID and deeply affected by declining foot traffic, shifting shopper habits and inflation. And their closures were very recently compounded by the bankruptcies of big brands like Bed Bath & Beyond and Party City. A restructuring at Staples added to Staten Island vacancies too.
And while some real estate experts like Pappalardo still wax optimistic, others say there’s work that needs to be done to fix the immediate future of commercial real estate.
“This isn’t a surprise for those of us in the business who have watched the markets closely,” noted James Prendamano, owner of PreReal Prendamano Real Estate, which is based in Tottenville. “This has been a trend now for almost 12 to 15 years as the digital world continued to disrupt everything and every place. Real estate was not insulated from that and began decentralizing as retailers realized they could reach customers in a more intimate and effective way on their phones.”
Prendamano said it naturally made sense for big companies to trade in their expensive “loss leader” stores with big rents and large expenses and “skinny up” their business model.
“And when COVID hit, it took this trend and put it on steroids,” Prendamano said.
Plus, he notes, many brands are leaving big cities entirely because they can’t keep merchandise on their shelves due to theft.
“It’s not insulated or isolated,” he said. “This is a systemic problem that keeps growing and is unfortunately getting worse.”
To fix it, Prendamano says there needs to be a multi-pronged solution.
“During COVID we had proposed sweeping emergency zoning, started talking about repositioning buildings because we knew offices weren’t coming back in the same capacity, the writing was on the wall,” he said. “But to get that sort of thing approved in New York City you face a wall of challenges.”
To stop big business from taking their capital and going elsewhere, Prendamano suggests looking at tax abatement again or allowing for zoning that is more reflective of our lifestyle – a mixed-use blend of residential and retail.
“It’s time for a task force,” he said. “Put together a panel of architects, engineers and elected officials who can offer a recommendation that can actually be enacted. This is a multi-headed beast we’re fighting here, we have to act to stem the tide. The big guys can pivot and open in a more favorable market. It’s the small mom and pop shops that worry me.”
Pappalardo sees it from a slightly different angle.
“You have to put yourself in the shoes of the client,” he said. “What kind of experience can you offer that is not available in the digital market? People still want to try things on or take an item for a test run. The vacant spaces are certainly still marketable, you just have to think of a creative use for them in order to be really successful.
“Staten Island lacks many things that have been doing well right over the bridge in New Jersey,” Pappalardo continued. “You have to think about what we are missing – I think that’s what is ultimately going to remedy the situation.”
Daniel Gielchinsky, a bankruptcy lawyer in south Florida who specializes in commercial dealings, agrees.
“What we think of big box brick-and-mortar has repositioned,” said Gielchinsky, founding partner of DGIM Law. “Supermarkets, entertainment centers, trampoline parks, laser tag arenas, indoor gyms – it’s destinations like those that are succeeding right now,” he said. “I don’t’ think the commercial real estate market will be majorly impacted by these store closures. Yes, it will take time to correct, but you’ll see other uses end up filing that void.”