Presented By: TF Cornerstone
TF Cornerstone’s Retailers Show Why Long Island City Is a Thriving Market
Long Island City retailers are thriving due to factors including work-from-home and an abundance of easily accessible outdoor space.
By TF Cornerstone May 22, 2023 8:00 amreprints
At a time when the fortunes of the retail sector have been more promising than many might have expected in recent years, retailers in Long Island City have been flourishing in inspiring ways now that the worst of COVID is behind us.
Long Island City has several unique factors working in retailers’ favor, from easily accessible outdoor space — including both public parks and wider sidewalks — to a close-knit sense of community and, for many local retailers, a supportive landlord in developer TF Cornerstone.
But the story of retail success in LIC is also one of retailer resilience and ingenuity.
When the pandemic hit, local coffee shop/cocktail bar Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters kept its business going by pivoting from retail to wholesale.
“Nobody wanted a prepared drink. People wanted things to make at home,” said Sweetleaf owner Rich Nieto. “We started selling bags of whole beans and growlers of cold brew. Fewer people came in, but the average ticket sale grew because instead of spending $5 on a latte, people were spending $30 on pastries and bulk coffee.”
As COVID restrictions loosened, Sweetleaf began selling cocktails to go. The fact that the pristine Gantry Plaza State Park, a gorgeous 12-acre park that abuts the East River with incredible, upfront views of the New York City skyline, is right across the street did wonders for their takeout business.
“Nobody wanted to go to a bar, but people picked up a lot of drinks to go and drank in the park,” said Nieto. “The bar did very well.”
Along the way, TF Cornerstone helped its retailers survive, initiating programs that allowed them to pay rent as a percentage of sales and by borrowing against their security deposit.
“We were no longer in the leasing business. We were in the tenant retention business,” said Steve Gonzalez, vice president of retail for TF Cornerstone. “We wanted to keep tenants committed to their spaces.”
As a testament to the strength of the local retail community, Gonzalez notes that out of the entire TF Cornerstone portfolio, which extends throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., retailers in Long Island City were the first to completely exit the rent relief program.
“By the end of 2020, all Long Island City retailers were off the program,” said Gonzalez, who notes that the area’s special qualities helped make this happen. “A lot of retailers took advantage of outdoor seating, benefiting from the wider sidewalks. Many have their very own outdoor terraces with views of the Manhattan skyline. That was a real benefit of Long Island City.”
Rob Bralow owns two stores in Long Island City, Blue Streak Wines & Spirits and the neighboring wine bar BLVD. Since liquor stores were regarded as essential businesses early on, Blue Streak never closed once the pandemic hit. Bralow burnished his online sales and set up a kiosk at the store’s front door, which resulted in a great opportunity to forge community.
“We talked to customers a lot more frequently and were able to give them more hands-on recommendations and more customer service,” said Bralow. “It was very nice to know the neighbors more rather than having them be just anonymous people that come in, buy a thing, and leave. It really brought us a good connection with TF Cornerstone’s tenants. It brought us all closer together.”
Today, this has resulted in a business that is more deeply plugged in to the wants and needs of its customer base, and is prospering because of it.
“People really latched on to the online purchase aspect of things,” said Bralow. “They found convenience in our delivery, and became more comfortable calling and emailing us.”
Bralow’s retail store has also profited from pandemic-driven trends making people more likely to work from home. This has greatly benefited the primarily residential neighborhood of Long Island City, where many residents used to commute to Midtown Manhattan five days a week.
“From a retail perspective, it’s a lot cheaper for people to purchase things and take them home rather than be serviced at a restaurant,” said Bralow. “Everyone started doing things on their own given how much cheaper it is to do that. So they are making more cocktails and doing more wine tastings at home.”
Bralow took the opportunity to renew his Blue Streak and BLVD leases in May of this year.
The upscale Asian restaurant Shi also benefitted from the wider sidewalks, park proximity and increased tendency to work from home, as its takeout food and cocktail business flourished.
“With a park right behind us, people would rather sit outside,” said owner Shih Lee. “They would order food and cocktails, and it was a win-win. All these things added up. We didn’t have to do things differently, because if residents couldn’t go to work, then they were working from home. We just continued doing what we did — giving them a good product at a fair price — and our people were thankfully very loyal.”
Shi’s business is flourishing today, and Lee also recently renewed his lease with TF Cornerstone for another 10 years.
Business has been so promising, in fact, that he just opened a new vinyl-record-inspired cocktail lounge/cafe across the street from Shi called Record Room.
In addition to Bralow and Lee, four other retailers either signed new leases or extended existing leases within the past two years
All in all, given the immense pressures the past few years have placed on retailers, the retail scene in Long Island City is thriving beyond what many could have expected.
“We have other properties in development in Long Island City — we just finished building Hunters Point South on the waterfront — and the majority of the retail leased prior to the opening,” said Gonzalez, who notes that in Long Island City, rental value has increased nearly 50 percent from pre-COVID to post-COVID. “Also, the fact that so many retail tenants here were clamoring to renew their leases all at once was inspiring and encouraging when contemplating our future developments. The post-COVID commuting patterns, combined with the critical mass of new residential and mixed-use buildings that have been added over the past few years, is resulting in a stronger and more resilient neighborhood for retailers.”