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Jamaica retail market: shining star in dim times.

There's something missing from the storefronts in Jamaica, Queens, and it's not merchandise.

It's the "For Rent" signs that are displayed today in too many retail windows throughout America.

While other retail districts are experiencing growing double- digit vacancy, Jamaica's bustling central business district boasts a near 2 percent vacancy rate, which represents a steady drop from the 4 percent of two years ago. And while this area of New York City has seen the departure of three department stores, a new one has opened and many small "niche" retailers have entered the market.

"Even our sidestreets are fairly full," said Jack Lerner, president of the Lerner Organization and a property an owner in Jamaica.

Property owners and economic development officials say they cannot pinpoint one significant event or reason why, despite the recession, this one-and-a-half mile section of South East Queens is stable and growing. Rather, they say, it is a successful combination of geography and initiatives by property owners and government dating back to the 1960's.

Go Where the Traffic Is

Jamaica, owners say, is appealing to retailers because, among other reasons, the central business district is one of the most visited locations in the borough.

Walter Bartnick, a former chair of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce and a current board member, said: "What's the adage in retailing? |You go where the traffic is.' That's what you have here."

Jamaica is a transportation hub for the borough of Queens with two subway lines and some 200 buses traveling in and out during rush hour. It is the beginning of the suburbs for Queens and Long Island and a major transfer station for the Long Island Railroad. Jamaica is the borough headquarters for Brooklyn Union Gas, New York Telephone and Con Edison, and the Queens Library. This area of Queens is also visited by 300,000 to 400,000 students daily from Queens College, St. John's and York College located right off Jamaica Avenue.

The area also offers 5,000 off-street parking spaces - in four high-rise garages and nine or 10 lots - and 1,500 or better on the street.

"It's a tremendous center and it goes back to the turn of the century," said Robert Richards, president of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce.

Property Owners Active

Fifteen years ago property owners and merchants in Jamaica banded together to form the city's first two Special Assessment Districts. The districts are the forerunners of today's Business Improvement Districts or "BIDs" in which property owners allow an extra property tax assessment to supplement city services in their area. (BIDs are approved by the New York City Council and Special Assessment Districts are created by the New York State legislature.)

One district, formed in 1977, covers 165th Street from Jamaica Avenue to the bus terminal and includes a closed shopping street - "The Mall". The other, formed in 1978, stretches between Sutphin Boulevard on the west and 170th Street on the east along Jamaica Avenue and Union Avenues to Hall Street. The area encompasses roughly 2 million square feet and comprises 2,650 retail jobs. The assessment districts' employees sweep the area twice a day 361 days a year and can be seen making repairs on the streets.

The assessment districts are administered by the Chamber, which Lerner said, represents businesses "fairly aggressively.

"There's a lot of little things this Chamber can do for the small property owner," he said.

One of the programs offered to merchants and property owners in the special assessment districts is a storefront improvement program being conducted in conjunction with the Urban Development Corporation. Owners can receive matching grants up to $7,500 and there is a designated architect to ensure consistency. According to Bartnick, some 27 stores have already expressed interest.

There is also an assistance program to help businesses become exporters. "It takes about two-and-a-half to three years from concept to first shipment," said Bartnick.

Employers can also take advantage of job training grants, which re-imburse 50 percent of an employee's salary up to $5,000 payable at the end of the program. "The key here is there are relatively few that don't complete [the program,]" said Bartnick.

The groups also lobby on behalf of businesses for tax incentives for property owners. They publish a newspaper for businesses and the public and they do advertising for the district, including bus posters that tout Jamaica as a "fashion stop." According to Richards the advertising is important because the smaller merchants used to rely on the department stores' advertising to draw shoppers. They also do a 7,000-square-foot Santa Land each year. "We focus a lot of attention on keeping identity," said Richards. "We have to compete with regional malls that offer climate control and covered parking."

According to Richards, the assessment districts were created to provide some of the services people are used to seeing in an enclosed mall.

Bartnick said the removal of the el on Jamaica Avenue was a stimulus for change.

"I think the removal of the el made people realize what they have here, " he said.

Adapting to Change

The population and the retail mix has changed in Jamaica over the years. The area has become home to more minorities and new immigrants from all over the globe. In the last 15 years, three department stores have closed - Macy's, J.W. Mays and B. Gertz. And while Wertheimer's department store opened in the former Mays building, the trend for Jamaica seems to be toward the small- to mid-sized value-priced retailer or "niche store". The Gertz building, after lying dormant for three or four years, re-opened as an indoor mall on the first and basement level and city and state offices occupy the upper floor. The closing of Macy's coincided with the opening of the closed mall street lined with dozens of small retailers.

Robert Fisher of Nationwide Management, which has owned two retail properties near Jamaica's bus terminal for 40 years, said his company has seen the population shift and some new retailers replace former ones that don't appeal to the shoppers.

"The tenancy in our properties has changed to reflect that and [they are] rented," he said.

According to Richards most owners have stayed in Jamaica throughout its changes. Some retailers, however, Lerner said, were not able or willing to adapt to the shifts.

"They really didn't recognize the marker that was coming," he said. "The population was changing. They weren't willing to wait."

The bright outlook for Jamaica, Lerner said, makes new investors, like himself, glad they came and older property owners happy they stayed. Stores are not vacant for any length of time, he said, and, unlike most markets today, property owners are able to get whatever rent the market will bear, which could be $50 or $60 per square foot.

"You see a store go vacant and there's normally a lease going up, Lerner said.

"They don't have a lot of negotiating power with us," Lerner said. "The rent is what the rent is with us."

Conways and White Castle will be opening up locations in Jamaica soon. Lerner said shoppers are looking for more up-scale retailers, but choice space is just not vacant. Owners and officials say they would like to see a top restaurant move into the area.

Lerner said he would like to buy more retail space, but it just isn't available.

Office space in Jamaica, he said, can be "bought for a song and a dance." The problem, however, is getting the financing for renovation. As, a result, there is office space in Jamaica that is not even on the rental market.

The decentralization of the city administration, however, has been a boon to Jamaica's office stock. In addition to city agencies opening up offices, there was activity from law firms and other private businesses that deal with those agencies.

Decades of Rebuilding

Jamaica is actually approaching the third phase of a re-building that began in the early 60's at which time, according to Richards, Jamaica was a "classic mature downtown urban area."

"By the time you hit the late 50's, you were dealing with a building stock that was 20 to 30 years and the demographics were changing," he said.

The first phase was mostly public investment lobbied for by property owners and the chamber. Initiatives included the bringing in of the Federal Social Security Building, which serves as the main check processing site for the Northeast. Other initiatives were a new subway line, the opening of York College, a branch of the City University of New York, and the rebuilding of the street. That six-month project involved removing the sidewalk and replacing it with brick and concrete borders and putting zig-zag brick in the intersections.

The second phase involves the reinvestment of public sector different investments with the retail. The third phase is office space renovations.

Fisher attributes the continued success of the area to the involvement of property owners, like himself, and the help of the city.

"It isn't perfect," said Richards, "but we keep working on it with the city."
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Jamaica district in Queens, New York, New York experiences growth in retail businesses
Author:Fitzgerald, Therese
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:May 20, 1992
Previous Article:O&Y's bankruptcy: a world-wide affair.
Next Article:Goodman tax reform bill condemned by REBNY.

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