Local businesses react to impacts of O.W.S.

[media-credit name=”Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Vincent Alessi, managing partner of Bobby Van’s Steakhouse on Broad Street, does not have a problem with the O.W.S. protests, but he does have a problem with the police barricades in front of his business.

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  The Occupy Wall Street demonstration, entering its seventh week, has proven to be a nuisance for local business owners as well as area residents. But for the merchants, the problem isn’t the drumming.

Several neighborhood storeowners within a 10-block radius of the Zuccotti Park encampment are complaining that O.W.S. is hurting business. Many of them allege that profits are declining due to patrons’ avoidance of the Financial District.

Angelo Tzortzatos, owner of Panini and Co. Breads, said O.W.S. is discouraging clientele from crossing Church Street to get to the store, which is perched on the corner of Cedar Street and Trinity Place.

Tzortzatos stopped letting the O.W.S. protesters use his bathrooms after one or more of them destroyed two bathroom sinks during the second week of the demonstration.

As a result, the restrooms were out of order for a full week.

“They dropped the sinks on the floor, and they broke them in half,” said Tzortzatos. “We spent $3,000 to fix them — they broke the pipe work, also.”

The sink disaster wasn’t the only O.W.S.-related incident that, according to Tzortzatos, has led to a 30 percent decline in revenues. The protesters constantly urinate in the café’s entrance area, said the owner.

“[In] the morning when the employees come to work, I catch them sleeping right outside,” said Tzortzatos. “I tell them to go away, because we’re not able to go in and unlock the doors to get into the restaurant.”

John Costalas, owner and operator of Essex World Café on Liberty Street, is facing the same dilemma. “They’re driving us crazy here,” he said. “Who gives them the right to urinate in our door and use the toilet of an establishment to wash themselves? This is a disaster for our neighborhood.”

“I’m one of the 99 percent — I’m against the bankers,” Costalas continued. “But I’m not doing it like they’re doing it.”

Alfi Apedo, co-owner of Pronto Pizza, next door, blamed the city for not providing the demonstrators with port-a-potties.

“Shame on us for not giving them aid,” said Apedo, whose business has actually seen a slight increase in profits thanks to the hungry protesters. Apedo said he doesn’t mind letting them the protesters use the bathroom — even those that come in five or six times a day.

“No matter what they are, bad or good, they have a right to pee. They’re human beings,” said the merchant.

“You can’t turn somebody away that needs a comfort station — as long as the bathroom is available for my customers,” echoed Vincent Alessi, managing partner of Bobby Van’s Steakhouse on Broad Street.

Community Board 1 Chair Julie Menin has suggested placing off-site bathroom facilities that could be used by the O.W.S. demonstrators as well as by visitors to the National 9/11 Memorial, and having a third party pay for them. To date Mayor Bloomberg has not officially commented on that idea.

Other area merchants are faulting O.W.S.-related police activity for the slump in business. The NYPD has set up a host of barricades along sections of Wall, Pine and Nassau Streets, and have even demanded identification from passersby, according to Melissa Andreev, manager of La Maison du Chocolat on Wall Street, and president of the Financial District Association, a local business and community advocacy group.

Fewer customers have been coming into the store compared to last month, when both the protest and the police presence were smaller, reported Andreev.

“On behalf of all the businesses, our walk-in traffic has decreased,” said Andreev. “You can see, this is a Friday afternoon before [Halloween], when people are getting their treats for the weekend, and I have one person in the store.”

Andreev isn’t fretting, however, since she believes the dropping air temperatures will eventually push the protesters out of the park.

“I personally don’t think they’ll be out there much longer with this cold weather,” said Andreev. “They’re not going to risk their lives to protest.”

The NYPD did not return repeated requests for comment concerning the barricades.

Weekday lunch crowds, typically comprised of around 250 people at Bobby Van’s, have declined by 50 percent since the barricades went up, according to Alessi. And, while regulars continue to frequent the steakhouse on weekends, weekday dinner patrons have dropped by 20 percent.

“People on the north side of Wall Street can’t get to the south side of the street without walking east or west two blocks,” said Alessi. “There have been nights when the streets have been completely closed and no one could get through.”

Alessi did note the protesters “right to air their grievances.”

“I’m not against them. But from a business perspective, the barricades can’t stay up indefinitely because they’ll wind up killing the businesses,” said Alessi, “and these are the businesses that hire people.”

Acknowledging the problem, Menin did a walk-through of the Financial District last Friday, Oct. 28, with Deputy Mayor for Government Affairs and Communications Howard Wolfson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and NY State Senator Daniel Squadron.

“We asked the city to look at why they’re so many barricades, and whether there is a way to remove them, since they’re having a very severe impact on the small businesses,” said Menin.

Eric Lazarus, who leads O.W.S.’s small business committee, reported that, out of the roughly 40 stores the group recently surveyed, approximately six reported at least one negative impact of the occupation, while four noted at least one positive impact. The rest, Lazarus said, were neutral.

“In terms of impacting peoples’ bottom lines, we found almost nothing,” said Lazarus.

According to O.W.S.’s survey notes, Shamirah Dillard, store manager of Pret A Manger on Broadway told Lazarus the branch is doing well since the demonstrators moved into the park. Dillard couldn’t be reached for comment, but a Bloomberg News article last week reported that, thanks to O.W.S, sales at the Broadway store have spiked as much as $1,000 a day.

Kevin Crossan, general manager at Modell’s Sporting Goods’ on Broadway, said the store has sold a “decent” amount of camping gear and T-shirts in recent weeks, though he couldn’t say whether the sales were directly attributable to O.W.S.

When asked about the protest’s impact on local business, Crossman said it isn’t helping or hindering.

“I guess I’m pretty neutral,” said Crossman. “I don’t really see it one way or another.”

O.W.S. has vowed to heed the merchants’ concerns and to “work through” the issues. They’ve set up a 24-hour hotline and e-mail address specifically for local businesses.

“The mediation working group includes those… who are committed to finding win-win solutions for everyone involved and/or impacted by O.W.S,” according to the letter Lazarus’s team distributed to the merchants.

“Within the bounds of exercising our freedom of speech and not leaving the park, we’re doing everything we can to try to be responsive and respectful,” said Lazarus. “If they can think of something else, we’re willing to do that, too.”

For businesses with sanitation, public safety or other O.W.S.-related concerns, call 917-524-6845 or e-mail owsmerchantrelations@gmail.com.