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Merchants waiting for boom at Queens West

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With groundbreaking for a second residential building at Queens West pushed back another few months, merchants along Vernon Boulevard will have to wait a while longer to see whether the Long Island City development fulfills its promise of economic revitalization for the area.

"We are just surviving," said Shaker Husein, owner of the Crystal health foods store on Vernon Boulevard. "That's not what we expected in this neighborhood."

Husein was one of a handful of small business owners who were drawn to Hunters Point by the promise of development at Queens West. The second apartment building at Queens West was set to break ground in February, but Queens West officials now say the date has been pushed back until late spring.

Queens West, a 74-acre project to develop the East River waterfront, is funded by $125 million in city and state funds. After nearly eight years, Queens West can claim just one completed building - the City Lights luxury apartment building, which opened in 1997. So far, business people in the area say the building's 521 units have not transformed the neighborhood the way some expected.

"The neighborhood changed for other reasons," said Sal Anzalone, a member of Community Board 2 and owner of the 44-year-old Cassino Restaurant.

Anzalone said he gets only "scattered" business from City Lights.

"Evidently I think they [City Lights residents] live here, but they do most of their business in Manhattan," Anzalone said.

Tara Patuto, owner of the Vernon Gallery's Hallmark store on Vernon Boulevard, said the influx of young apartment-seekers in the surrounding Hunters Point area is a much more visible force changing the neighborhood.

"People just come off the No. 7 train and ask me, "Do you know of any apartments?'" she said.

Patuto, who bought the 14-year-old store two years ago, said most of the businesses that have survived rely on established clientele from the surrounding Hunters Point neighborhood, not simply from City Lights.

"The ones that are here have been here for a while," she said. "You can't rely on one building for your business."

At least two small businesses that opened in the last two years, a florist shop and a pet store, have already closed, she said.

Husein, who opened his natural foods store two years ago with high hopes for the neighborhood, said he is keeping his fingers crossed that the next Queens West apartment building will boost his business.

"We're hoping that will happen," he said. "I'm giving it another year or so."

AvalonBay, developers for the second residential building, were scheduled to break ground on the apartment in February. This week, Queens West President Carolyn Bachan said the groundbreaking had been postponed until April or May.

But Bachan said the potential impact of Queens West on the neighborhood is still quite large.

"Seventy-five percent of Queens West is a residential project," she said. "You're talking about a tremendous demand."

The development of the commercial portion of Queens West could also bolster local businesses by attracting office workers, Bachan said.

But the commercial core development has also been delayed. Queens West had planned to announce its choice of a developer in February, but Bachan said the date had been pushed back one month.

In the meantime, establishments that thrive in the area, like Mario's Deli, are looking closer to home. Mario Migliorelli, co-owner of the deli, said he does a brisk business that comes mainly from neighborhood regulars in addition to the dozen or so deliveries he makes every day to City Lights.

Among his regular customers, Migliorelli counts the cast and crew of the hit cable series "The Sopranos," which shoots at Silvercup Studios nearby. Autographed photos of Sopranos stars Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco grace the deli's wall, but the show will not resume shooting until the spring.

"I can't wait for them to come back," he said.

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