New York Helps Give Some of Its Iconic Bodegas a Makeover


A new awning for J&F Mini Market in East New York is applied above the store. A pilot program aims to boost foot traffic and enhance commercial corridors by increasing the transparency, lighting and attractiveness of business storefronts.

A new awning for J&F Mini Market in East New York is applied above the store. A pilot program aims to boost foot traffic and enhance commercial corridors by increasing the transparency, lighting and attractiveness of business storefronts.


Photo:

Sarah Blesener for The Wall Street Journal

Brooklyn bodega owner

Manny Valdez

knows there’s a change in the customers visiting his East New York store. The Spanish brands of food, flour and canned goods aren’t selling as well anymore, and some customers are asking for fresh juices, organic vegetables and fancier beers.

So to keep up with the shifting demographic and draw in more foot traffic from the nearby Cleveland Street subway stop, Mr. Valdez, 45 years old, is rolling out a new identity for his 17-year-old store.

Out will go the bulletproof-glass windows cluttered with stickers and signs. Half the dry goods shelving will go, too. In will come new lighting and floors, a vegetable stand, a fresh juice machine and a deli that can churn out bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches.

A new pilot program in the area, the Commercial Corridor Challenge, is helping stores like Mr. Valdez’s adjust to the evolving neighborhood by subsidizing new signs, windows and awnings. The program, funded by the city and corporate and private donors, aims to strengthen and study commercial areas in rapidly changing neighborhoods.

J&F Mini Market, before its awning and frontage upgrade.

J&F Mini Market, before its awning and frontage upgrade.


Photo:

Steven White/LISC

J&F Mini Market, with its new awning and exterior.

J&F Mini Market, with its new awning and exterior.


Photo:

Sarah Blesener for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Valdez is using it as a chance to make changes to merchandise and other aspects of the store. His Cleveland Deli has a new name: Cleveland Deli and Organic, adding what he said is a nod to his new, younger, health-conscious customers.

“That’s what’s coming to the neighborhood,” Mr. Valdez said. “You have to get ready.”

The revitalization program, which is also being implemented in parts of Staten Island and the Bronx, is modeled on research of Philadelphia’s commercial corridors. The premise is that a few improved storefronts along a strip can encourage other merchants to tidy up, which will in turn increase perceptions of street safety and drive foot traffic.

Merchants apply for the storefront grants, which can cost tens of thousands per store. Only a handful of businesses are a part of the program so far while it is in its pilot stage.

In rapidly changing neighborhoods, commercial corridors have been struggling, said

Eva Neubauer Alligood,

deputy director of LISC NYC, the nonprofit leading the program. Merchants “need to benefit from change, not be kind of quashed over,” she said.

“Change is coming,” said

Gregory Schiefelbein,

who leads the New York tri-state region for

Citigroup
Inc.’s

Citi Community Development, which provided funding and helped develop the program. “We want to make sure that neighborhood institutions, people who have been invested in the community for a long time, are able to pivot.”

Fulton Street—which runs partly beneath the elevated J line—is part of the East New York rezoning plan that was approved in 2016. The neighborhood has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the city, and the rezoning is intended to bring more density and housing.

J&F Mini Market owner Juan Diaz poses for a portrait in his store, which has a new awning as part of the pilot program.

J&F Mini Market owner Juan Diaz poses for a portrait in his store, which has a new awning as part of the pilot program.


Photo:

Sarah Blesener for The Wall Street Journal

But as rents rise, there is a concern that small-business owners will be driven out, said

Raquel Olivares

of Cypress Hills Local Development Corp., which is working with merchants.

East New York residents spend $1.65 billion each year on goods and services in their neighborhood, but spend $591 million elsewhere, according to a recent report from the New York City Department of Small Business Services, which has provided funding to the program. Along Fulton Street, 11% of storefronts are vacant, according to the city, and 25% of merchants own their building.

Mr. Valdez and another bodega owner,

Juan Diaz,

62, are both longtime residents and own their buildings, which sit on opposite high-traffic corners along Fulton Street.

One recent morning, Mr. Diaz watched as new signage and a colorful awning were installed above his new windows at J&F Mini Market. The cost of the storefront beautification was around $20,000, with Mr. Diaz chipping in some money—which is required—and the rest funded by the program. He put new windows in recently and “there was more traffic because of the appearance of the store,” he said.

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