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Flushing family biz faces second MTA eviction

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After a bitter legal battle with the MTA five years ago landed the Avena family a three-year lease on their shoe-shine and flower shops in Flushing, the transit agency is once again planning to evict the 80-year-old family business under the Long Island Rail Road viaduct.

The Avenas held a rally July 25 at their tiny shop on Main Street because they contend they are being unjustly evicted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the property and has agreed to lease it to a Chinese fast food chain.

“It’s very upsetting,” said Michael Avena. His father, Tony Avena, had a shoe-shine business on the site and was threatened with eviction in 1996. “My dad went through it and it was traumatic,” the younger Avena said.

The rally was attended by State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing), where signs hung from the store reading: The MTA wants to kill our family business,” “Keep Tony’s dream alive,” “Save our business,” and “80 years of serving Queens forgotten.”

The Avena family believes the MTA may be holding a grudge against them from the high-profile legal battle five years ago, which drew supporters from across the city.

A spokeswoman for the MTA, Lisa Schwartz, said the transit agency was only looking for the best business deal when it requested bids on the property and accepted the highest offer from a Chinese fast food chain called Wok and Roll.

In 1996, the plight of the 81-year-old shoe-shine man, gained national attention when the MTA tried to raise his rent sevenfold.

Politicians, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and state Sen. Leonard Stavisky, the late husband of State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing), got involved in the Avena case.

After several months, Avena obtained a three-year lease on the store for $2,750 a month.

A few months after the issue was resolved, Tony Avena was diagnosed with cancer. He died two years later in 1998 at the age of 83 and the shoe-shine portion of the store closed. He had worked there for 72 years and never missed a day of work, his family said.

Giuliani attended Avena’s funeral and promised his widow “if you have any trouble with the MTA, let me know,” according to the Avena family.

Tony Avena’s son and nephew, both named for their grandfather Michael, an Italian immigrant who opened the shop in 1922, have been carrying on the family business.

“It’s a great tradition,” Tony’s son, Michael, said. “Dad said it was our family legacy and we want to continue on with it.”

Both Michaels started at the store at an early age and worked there after classes at Flushing High School.

After Tony Avena’s death, the three-year lease on the property was no longer valid because it contained a death clause, but the MTA allowed the Avena family to stay on. Earlier this year, the transit agency asked for bids on the property and received 13 offers, including one from the Avenas, Schwartz said.

The MTA accepted Wok and Roll’s offer of more than $400,000 for a 10-year lease, much higher than the Avena’s offer.

“It was in the best interest of the MTA, business-wise, to go with the higher bidder,” Schwartz said.

No priority was given to the Avenas for occupying the location for nearly 80 years, but no prejudice was exercised against them either, Schwartz said. “It was a business decision.”

David Rosenberg, an attorney representing the Avenas, said they not only agreed to match Wok and Roll’s offer but also offered to exceed it and clean up the area around the store.

But Schwartz said it would be illegal for the MTA to accept a new bid at this point.

“Technically, it’s illegal to divulge to another bidder what that bid was, so we can’t take a counter-proposal at this time,” Schwartz said.

At press time, it remained unclear if the Avenas would have the chance to legally retain the property.

“I am not going to lose this store because of money,” said Michael J. Avena, whose father, Vincent, opened Depot Florist in 1947. “If it is a question of not eating dessert or not taking a vacation, I’ll take the store.”

But the Avena cousins think they are not welcome in the area. Michael J. said the MTA basically told the family “we don’t want you here.”

Anthony’s son Michael agreed: “We’re trying to do everything they required, but they don’t want the operation here,” he said of the MTA.

The Avenas have received word from the mayor that he wants to help them, and their lawyer said they have a meeting set up with a deputy mayor, who will talk to the MTA on their behalf.

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Rego Park), state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing) and Stavisky have all written to the MTA, asking the agency to let the Avenas stay.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 138.

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