BY YANNIC RACK | Strolling through the Essex Street Market, casual visitors will be mostly oblivious to the troubles its historic halls have seen over the last few years. On closer inspection, they might notice the few shuttered stalls whose spaces have sat empty for almost a year. And sometimes, the corridors displaying fresh produce and exotic fare can feel deserted even without comparing them to bustling days gone by.
The market, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, has had to cope with a sharp drop in business ever since the Essex Crossing redevelopment was formally announced in 2012.
As part of the $1 billion project, which began construction across the street last month, nine blocks in the area will be transformed from what are now mostly parking lots to apartment buildings and a range of shops and cultural spaces.
Also part of the plan is a new and larger home for the market, which will be located just across Delancey St. Many local residents and visitors wrongly believe that the market has closed its doors until the new space opens in three years, much to the dismay of the old-time grocers, as well as newer artisanal bakers and the like, that still serve the surrounding Lower East Side community.
“I think that there was a dramatic drop after the project was announced for a lot of vendors, because there was a lot of public uncertainty about the future of the market — if we’re closed now, if we’re closing later,” said Anne Saxelby, who opened her own market stall, Saxelby Cheesemongers, nine years ago.
Saxelby said her shop lost about a third of its customers within one year after the plans were made public. She did note that some of the older vendors, who have been there for decades and rely heavily on the area’s public-housing population, were not hit quite as hard. Nonetheless, the crunch was felt by all the merchants, and as a result three stalls, including one butcher run by Saxelby’s husband, closed down earlier this year.
But now there are some efforts underway that have market vendors at least hoping for a return to business as usual.
Saxelby heads the Essex Street Market Vendors Association. The group was created in 2012 to advocate for vendors’ rights during the Essex Crossing project and works with the Lower East Side Business Improvement District and the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees and rents out spaces at the market.
The vendors have long criticized E.D.C. for neglecting the market and failing to counter the impression that it is closed until its relocation. But now their tone has changed, albeit only slightly, in the face of new programs that are supposed to reverse the current trend.
The market will open for extended hours from Sept. 11 through December, which E.D.C. says will be complemented by “programming” to help drive foot traffic — things like market tours and screenings as part of the LES Film Festival. It is also providing the business improvement district with $10,000 for advertising in the coming year, part of an agreement that will see the organization take over some other marketing responsibilities, as well.
“We have been working closely with the vendors association on a variety of marketing and programming initiatives,” Tim Laughlin, the BID’s executive director, said, adding that he couldn’t disclose any details just yet.
The BID had also planned to install Street Seats directly outside on Essex St. this summer, to increase awareness of the market and encourage customers and passersby alike to linger. But last week Laughlin said that the program, which is organized in coordination with the city’s Department of Transportation, will be delayed until next April.
The initiative had been pushed back repeatedly and eventually became too expensive, since the seats are only seasonal and have to be removed by October. At this point, Laughlin said, the time window had become too small.
“In concert with the Street Seats, we’ll be requesting a variety of improvements to parking regulations that both support customers and vendors on that block,” he said.
Saxelby said that while they were disappointed to have to wait another seven months, the vendors agreed that it made more sense to delay the program so that it can run for the whole season.
What could signal a change at the market much sooner, however, is a new management structure: Around three weeks ago, the vendors association was formally incorporated as a nonprofit, something that had been in the works for some time.
“We’re incorporated as a merchants association now, so we’re a 501c6 nonprofit, which is a slightly more limited form than a 501c3,” Saxelby said. “It’s basically to do marketing, promotion and advocacy for a group of small merchants. Our goal wasn’t self-management by the vendors association but alternative management with a new nonprofit structure,” she said, adding that this model has proved itself at other public markets around the country, including Pike Place Market in Seattle and Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
With the incorporation process complete, E.D.C. is now providing funding to hire a part-time vendor services coordinator, who will support the vendors by liaising with community organizations and city agencies, and take over many of the tasks and coordination that are required on a daily basis.
“We hope to hire that person in September and have them help us strengthen all those relationships and make the market ever more visible in the public eye,” Saxelby said.
That would also benefit the new tenants that are moving in soon. E.D.C. told The Villager this week that it is finalizing agreements with four vendors who will once again fill the market to full capacity.
An agency spokesperson said that one of the new stalls will be occupied by Puebla Mexican Food, the restaurant that this spring had to close its doors after 25 years on First Ave. between E. Second and E. Third Sts., due to a rent hike. Other vendors could potentially include a craft beer shop and a Japanese food vendor, according to a source at the market. Saxelby said she hopes the mix will also include a butcher.
Filling the empty spaces might, at the very least, boost morale among the other vendors, if Saxelby’s reaction is an indicator.
“I feel like a full market is a vibrant market,” she said. “It’s like the broken windows theory — if there’s a couple of things going wrong, then it makes it look like there is more going wrong. The market is still a vibrant place, so filling it up to capacity is absolutely the way to go.”
In general, though, she is still careful not to heap too much praise onto E.D.C.
“E.D.C. has managed the market but I wouldn’t say we’ve worked together,” she remarked. “We’ve really had more of a collaboration with the BID in terms of making change.”
She specifically mentioned E.D.C.’s long approval processes for simple things like putting up signs outside or allowing a TV crew to come in and film a segment, which would attract press coverage and visitors.
“I feel like there’ve been steps made to sort of turn things around, but we’re just starting to see the first bits of real action and commitment to change,” Saxelby said.
The vendors still have three years left in their historic building, which dates from the administration of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, when it was built to house pushcart vendors, who were clogging up the streets. But the low-slung structure itself can sometimes seem like part of the problem. The market’s 15,000 square feet are hidden behind a drab and uninviting facade; the banners out front advertising the market were only installed this spring.
“The building that we’re currently in is kind of like a shed, people don’t know what’s going on inside,” Saxelby said, adding that all of the vendors were looking forward to the move across the street to the bigger location. “It’s going to be a lot more visible from the street, it will be all glass, which is great.”
The vendors at the old market will get first dibs on the new spaces and moving expenses will be covered by the developers.
So far business at the current location hasn’t rebounded, at least not at Saxelby Cheesemongers, though it hasn’t dropped off any further, either. Whether the upcoming marketing initiatives will pay off, along with previous ones — like the market’s 75th anniversary celebrations earlier this year — remains to be seen. Since the summer months are generally tough on retailers in the city, Saxelby thinks it could all finally pan out this fall.
“We’re just hopeful that these new agreements that are being put in place now will pave the way for a more effective, collaborative relationship moving forward,” she said. “But they are still untested.”