By Bill Parry
Last year’s Taste of LIC celebrated its 10th anniversary with a record 66 restaurants, wine shops and breweries taking part inside a 9,000-square-foot festival tent pitched on Gantry Plaza State Park Monday night. The cultural and culinary event raises over $100,000 annually to support programming at the Obie-award winning Chocolate Factory Theater, but this year was different.
“We haven’t got a total yet, but it is lower this year,” Taste of LIC founder Sheila Lewandowski said. “And this year we were down to 47 establishments. We have a real estate crisis and it’s not just about apartments. We have to figure out a way to support more locally owned small business. They’re the people who really care about this neighborhood.”
Restaurant owners and community leaders agree that the development that is going on in Long Island City is driving up commercial rents. Some, like Sage Roadhouse, have already closed.
“It’s a very real concern that there will be less and less of us here each year,” said Rebecca Trent, president of the LIC Eateries Association and owner of The Creek and the Cave. “Everyone’s lease rents are going up from $30 to $45 a square-foot. That’s a 300 percent increase from when I moved in a decade ago.”
Leslie Nilsson closed Sage Roadhouse earlier this month after 18 years in Court Square. She took part in the Taste of LIC to promote her catering business, Bartleby & Sage.
“It wasn’t that the rent on a new lease was too high. The landlord didn’t even offer a new lease, he didn’t even give a price,” Nilsson said. “Back when I opened we were the only game in town. I started at $30,000. Now you need a half a million just to open a restaurant.”
It’s not just the restaurants. In an appeal to support small business in Long Island City, Chocolate Factory Theater Artistic Director Brian Rogers told of one longstanding business that closed when the landlord raised the rent to $10,000 a month.
“That’s what is happening in this neighborhood. It’s getting to the point where a small business can’t imagine opening here,” Rogers said. “They’re struggling and there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism to fix it and this neighborhood will grow less interesting. I wish some of these developers would understand that.”
And it will get worse, Rogers warned. There are more than 30 under-construction or proposed projects in Long Island City.
“This is the fastest growing neighborhood in New York City and we have to keep it affordable for the people that made it grow,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said. “Long Island City is desirable for a reason and I’m charged with making sure that the character of the neighborhood doesn’t go up in smoke.”
Brent O’Leary, president of the Hunters Point Civic Association, agreed.
“I’m concerned that if we don’t protect the small businesses we’ll lose the character of the neighborhood,” he said. “We don’t want to be a commuter city where everyone works in Manhattan and just comes back here to sleep.”
The owner of Alobar, the Michelin-starred restaurant on Vernon Boulevard, who has had a long-running battle with Community Board 2 over use of outdoor space, thinks he has an answer.
“Term limits,” Jeff Blath said. “Some of these people chair committees for 20 years and small business isn’t getting the support they need and yet there are no term limits and that’s a big problem.”
The newly elected chairwoman of CB 2, Denise Keehan-Smith, made the Taste of LIC her first public appearance since winning the seat this month. The third generation Woodsider said there have been no surprises.
“I knew I was going to have my hands full,” she said. “It’s a critical time for this neighborhood with all of the expansion and transportation issues, but the same thing is happening in Sunnyside where we voted down the Phipps Houses project and of course there’s Woodside. We need a lot of work there, too. You have the LIRR, the No. 7 and all of those bus lines coming through making it such a busy hub. You see so many people walking with luggage and that will increase with the new Q70 bus service to LaGuardia. I want to make a good impression on travelers.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr