Manhattan’s South Street Seaport area still devastated after Sandy

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

NEW YORK—In most parts of lower Manhattan, few signs remain of the damaging floodwaters and raging winds from Superstorm Sandy that nearly washed this part of the city away in October.

In hard-hit areas around Battery Park, the power has been restored, phone service is back, thousands of office workers have returned to their desks and tourists clog the sidewalks.

“Lower Manhattan is back to business,” a recent report by the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes development in the area, declared.

Tell that to the store owners and residents of the South Street Seaport neighborhood, where the historic cobblestone streets and old mercantile buildings remain eerily empty nearly five months after the storm hit.

“Everybody knows about the Rockaways and Staten Island and New Jersey. … But I don’t think most people know about the carnage that took place at the Seaport. Unless you've been down here, nobody knows how bad it really is,” said Adam Weprin, whose family owns the historic Bridge Cafe on Water Street, which is still closed. “Walking around here at night, it's like Chernobyl.”

In what used to be one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, blocks and blocks of storefronts north and east of Pier 17 remain empty and boarded up—many of their interiors still visibly devastated after a seven-foot storm surge washed through this part of the city. Pier 17 itself has reopened only in bits and pieces (and will close in September as part of a full reconstruction approved before Sandy struck).

In total, around 85 percent of businesses in the neighborhood remain closed—their windows still decorated with stickers from city building inspectors that declared their spaces unsafe—according to one recent count by the city. Fewer than a dozen stores, bars and restaurants out of hundreds have reopened. Downtown officials say at least 400 jobs in the area have been lost—along with potentially hundreds of thousands of tourism dollars. In 2011, the Seaport had 9 million visitors and was ranked No. 26 on the list of the world's most popular tourist attractions—tied with the Great Wall of China.

On a recent afternoon, a smattering of tourists fumbled around a once-popular commercial strip along Fulton Street that used to be packed with dozens of chain stores, including Ann Taylor, J.Crew, Guess, the Body Shop and Brookstone. Not one of the stores has reopened in the aftermath of Sandy—and there's currently no indication of when or if they will.

Disputes over everything, from who should pay to rebuild the properties to complicated rent negotiations between landlords and lessees who would like to see concessions from owners in order to help them recover losses, has slowed down redevelopment.

Also, business owners say they’ve been stifled by debates with their insurance companies over whether the damage caused by the Sandy flood was covered. And while New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, looking to jump-start development, has spearheaded a program to offer loans and grants to businesses looking to rebuild, many owners say they're wary of taking on any more debt when the future of the neighborhood seems uncertain.

At the same time, at least a dozen apartment buildings along Front Street and surrounding blocks remain closed for renovations. The city estimates that thousands of local residents remain dislocated.

Some local merchants are actively rebuilding in hopes of reopening this spring, including the Bridge Cafe. Built in 1794, it has operated as everything from a saloon to a brothel to a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Most recently, it was a hot spot among the city’s political elite, a destination former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, until his death last month, described as his favorite restaurant in the city.

But the cafe was virtually totaled in October when the storm surge flooded the basement up to the rafters. Upstairs in the first-floor dining room, which still had its rustic decor dating to the early 1900s, there was another three to four feet of water.

One of the few things Weprin and his family saved was the old bar. The rest, including kitchen equipment and the building’s 200-year-old wooden foundation beams, have had to be replaced at a cost of at least $400,000. Some of that money has been raised through fundraising efforts, as Weprin’s insurance company, he said, has dragged its feet on paying claims related to the flood.

“We’ve survived economic slumps [and] some bad nor'easters. We even survived 9/11,” Weprin said. “But we’ve never gone through anything as bad as this." He added that "coming down here, it can be a psychological battle not to fall into some emotional dark pit, because everything is just so devastating."

There are some signs of life in the neighborhood. Around the corner from Bridge Cafe, a quirky bar and restaurant called the Cowgirl Sea-Horse partly reopened in December and relaunched its full kitchen service last month (its fast recovery is aided by the fact that it doesn't have a basement). In the dining room, near a velvet painting featuring Jesus Christ with an 18-wheeler, there's a blue mark about five feet up the wall showing how high the water was in the aftermath of Sandy. Much of the dining room and part of the kitchen had to be rebuilt.

“We’re one of the lucky ones, but it hasn’t been easy,” Maura Kilgore, a co-owner and general manager, told Yahoo News. Kilgore estimated that so far sales in March were down 40 percent compared with the same time last year.

Adding to the problems, Kilgore said, is construction along the Peck Slip and nearby blocks, where the city is ripping up the cobblestone streets as part of a neighborhood improvement project. Construction, which began more than a year ago, has been inching by at a snail’s pace, according to local retailers, and has made the already damaged neighborhood appear even worse off.

“It’s hard to get people down here when everything is so dark and unappealing,” Kilgore said. “If we can get everybody back, all of our businesses and neighbors, I think we'll come out of it better than ever. But I'm not sure that’s going to happen yet."

Nearby on South Street, the only open storefront on the block belongs to Pasanella and Son, Vinters, a popular neighborhood wine shop. Like Cowgirl Sea-Horse, the store was able to reopen quickly because it had no basement. According to owner Marco Pasanella, the store saw a bump in holiday sales because of the support and public attention it received in the aftermath of Sandy, but this has gone away.

“We're really starting to feel the bad effects now, especially because so many residents haven’t been able to come home,” Pasanella said. “We’ll be fine until people come back, but it’s a matter of making it work until they do.”

Pasanella, who lives above his store, spoke about how “eerie” the neighborhood has been. “So much light comes from storefronts and apartments. You felt the energy and activity of the city,” he said. “But it feels so different now. If you walk down the street at night, you just feel so disconnected. It’s so empty.”

Adding to concerns in the neighborhood is a planned redevelopment of Pier 17, in which the existing mall will be torn down and replaced with a new structure—a plan approved long before Sandy happened. This week, the Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns Pier 17 and holds most of the leases along Fulton Street, agreed to push back the pier's demolition from July to September, amid concerns the work would further drive away tourists.

But a major unknown is whether retailers along Fulton Street will reopen while Pier 17 is under construction. The Hughes Corp., which did not respond to requests for comment, has told the city it expects to reopen many of the chain stores along Fulton Street by June or July, but it has been vague about which stores will be coming back, according to Kelly Magee, a spokeswoman for New York City Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the area.

"This is obviously a major concern for us, because that area along Fulton Street is the face of the Seaport area," Magee told Yahoo News. "If things remain closed and boarded up along there, it makes attracting people back to the area even more difficult. It's a black eye for the neighborhood."

Some around the Seaport are taking a wait-and-see approach before fretting about lost business in the aftermath of Sandy.

Lee Holin owns Meade’s Restaurant, which reopened quickly because of a $25,000 grant from the Downtown Alliance, which gave out $1.5 million in grants to Sandy-affected businesses to help them reopen. Holin, whose family has owned bars in the neighborhood since the 1970s, said business has been slow—but it was always slow this time of the year. He said the true impact of Sandy’s devastation on local businesses wouldn’t be felt until May or June at the earliest—the beginning of the warm season when customers are more likely to stroll through the neighborhood.

But even if business is down, Holin insisted, “We will survive. I’ve seen this neighborhood quieter than this. We were around when nobody was open,” he said. “Sandy isn’t going to drive us away.”