Biz owners, Weiner bemoan high rents

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Vacant stores in Queens have as much to do with landlords who charge extravagant rents as they do with the sour economy, residents told U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) at a meeting in Kew Gardens last week.

Weiner met with small business owners at his Kew Gardens office last Thursday night to discuss challenges they face.

“There are about five vacancies around me because the rent is too high,” said Alberta Gray, who owns Gray’s Bicycles, a mainstay in Kew Gardens for 50 years. “The landlords just don’t care if they rent the places.”

Weiner said the same thing will happen on Austin Street in Forest Hills because landlords want to hold out for better economic times so they can sign a higher-priced, long-term rental agreement.

“They think four lean years are better than getting into a rent they’ll regret in five years,” Weiner said of the landlords. “A lot of places will have long-term leases, especially restaurants.”

The Forest Hills congressman said that while there is little legislators can do to deter the landlords from leaving their stores vacant besides pressure from the community, he did say “we need to make it clear that any tax benefits they get are contingent upon them operating.”

Marie Sinanian, who has co-owned Stoa Jewelry in Forest Hills for 43 years, echoed Gray’s concerns.

“I’ve been in business since 1968 and rent is not affordable,” she said.

Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce President Leslie Brown said Forest Hills has “a few more empty storefronts than usual,” although she said new stores are opening as well.

Still, she lamented the closing this spring of Buster Brown Shoes, an infant’s and children’s shoe store on Austin Street that had opened in the late 1940s. Brown said she was not sure whether it was an increase in rent or the economy that claimed Buster Brown.

“But Austin Street is fighting the problem of high rent more than the economy,” Brown said.

Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation’s Maria Thomson also complained that the city has been too aggressive in handing out parking tickets, which she and other business representatives said deter many shoppers from frequenting the mom-and-pop stores that often line the borough’s commercial strips.

“The meters are killing us,” Thomson said.

Weiner said small shop owners can learn what kind of help they can receive from his office and those of other elected officials, including state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), who attended the meeting.

Pintso Topgay, of the city Department of Small Business Services, said the NYC Business Solutions Queens Center at 168-25 Jamaica Ave. can also help owners with problems they are facing. The center offers business courses, financing, ideas for recruitment and advice on how to sell products to the government.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 6:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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