By Daniel Massey
Development of Liberty Avenue into an ethnic specialty retail strip catering to Indo-Caribbeans presents the commercial corridor with its greatest chance of success, a study released Wednesday by the community development group Agenda 21 said.
Liberty Avenue has become the “Main Street” of the Indo-Caribbean community, serving both residents in the immediate vicinity and Indo-Caribbeans who have dispersed throughout the metropolitan region, the study said.
Some 41 percent of the shoppers along the avenue are Guyanese and 25 percent are Trinidadian, the largest groups to patronize the strip, the study said.
The commercial corridor is thriving as once vacant storefronts along the more than 30-block stretch from the Van Wyck Expressway service road to Woodhaven Boulevard have been replaced by Indo-Caribbean-owned restaurants, West Indian markets, and clothing shops, where traditional saris hanging in windows emblazon the avenue.
Although vacancy rates are at 5 percent, fear that the avenue will lose later generation, more professional and affluent Indo-Caribbean shoppers to mainstream malls, such as Queens Center in Elmhurst and Green Acres on Long Island, prompted the study to suggest a “nuanced approach” to redeveloping the strip.
Since the corridor is currently thriving, the potential to affect redevelopment along Liberty Avenue is limited, the study said. Strategies must focus on the “quality of the business environment,” it said.
While some merchants suggested transforming the avenue into a Richmond Hill and Ozone Park version of Forest Hills’ upscale Austin Street, the study said this approach would not succeed.
It said the strip would have difficulty attracting brand-name stores because of its proximity to downtown Jamaica and the comparatively light foot traffic on the avenue.
But even if Liberty Avenue could entice national chains, the study suggested small independents would have little chance of surviving amid higher rents, compromising “the authentically ethnic character of the corridor.”
Raymond Ally, co-chairman of Agenda 21, said the study concluded that preserving the ethnicity of Liberty Avenue will “allow it to thrive” into the future.
“We want to get the feel of Austin Street without copying it. It’s more mainstream,” he said.
The study said “tactical departures” from a traditional ethnic shopping strategy will help the strip flourish. Specifically, the study identified four measures that would help Liberty Avenue “achieve destination status.”
•Sidewalk sales and a Liberty Avenue market would “provide new and different businesses, including ethnic-specific ones, with greater visibility and possibility for success.”
•The lack of family dining and recreational opportunities on the avenue is driving people to more mainstream malls. Entrepreneurs should be encouraged to open up sit-down ethnic restaurants that would be key to “luring upwardly mobile ethnic immigrants from the neighborhood.”
•Later closing hours would enable residents, many of whom have commutes of longer than one hour, to shop on their way home from work.
•A Business Improvement District that would focus on the marketing of the avenue as a vibrant ethnic business district should be established.
Ally said the BID recommendation was the key to the study. “With a BID we’ll be able to ensure the continued economic viability of the street and allow businesses to thrive along the corridor,” he said.
Agenda 21 is a community development organization representing more than 30 Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park business leaders.
In addition to seeking to establish a Liberty Avenue BID, in the past four years the group has secured more than $1 million in funding from the City Council for renovations to Smokey Oval Park and published a New American Market merchant directory. The second edition of the business listings is due out later this year.
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.