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Flatiron businesses struggling to make up lost revenue after steam pipe explosion

Merchants are offered loans up to $30,000, and Con Edison has received 41 commercial claims.

Pedestrians ignore a

Pedestrians ignore a "sidewalk closed" sign on Fifth Avenue, near a crater left behind by a steam pipe explosion, on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. Photo Credit: Rajvi Desai

Small businesses in the Flatiron District that were forced to shut down after a steam pipe explosion blasted a huge crater on Fifth Avenue are struggling with a drop in revenue while seeking compensation for their losses.

At least 44 buildings were exposed to asbestos-contaminated dust and debris that sprayed from the explosion on July 19. As a result, the city evacuated approximately 500 New Yorkers who had to be displaced in light of health concerns relating to exposure to the cancer-causing material.

On Monday, roughly three weeks after the explosion, most of the businesses had reopened. Con Edison workers milled around the area on Fifth Avenue either ushering traffic by, taking a break in makeshift tents set up on adjacent streets, or working heavy machinery near the site of the explosion. Yellow caution tape, barricades and hard hats mingled with pedestrians, who sometimes ignored a “sidewalk closed” sign to peer at the now-boarded up crater left behind.

Amid the chaos, storefronts displayed signs informing passers-by that they were indeed open for business. While most of the big chain stores on Fifth Avenue fell back on their corporate headquarters for help relocating employees and toughing out the shutdown, small business owners had a harder time. They admitted to fewer customers post-explosion, which in turn exacerbated the loss in revenue that they had already been grappling with.

“The streets were closed and we didn’t have any access to the building until [July 23]. It did affect a lot of business,” Yamil Vaca, owner of Flatiron Tailor Shop at 174 Fifth Ave., said. “People are afraid when they see the street closed and they don’t want to get involved because of the asbestos.”

In order to help businesses affected in the area, the city’s Department of Small Business Services has teamed up with the Renaissance Economic Development Corporation to offer up to $30,000 in loans, with a 2 percent interest rate that can be deferred up to six months.

“Small business owners need to know that they don’t have to rebuild alone after a major emergency,” SBS commissioner Gregg Bishop said. “We’ve already assisted 125 impacted businesses with their immediate concerns and are helping to connect businesses in need with Renaissance Economic Development Corporation’s low-interest loan program to further expedite the recovery process.”

Vaca, who said that business had been slow since the explosion, did not intend to make use of the loan offer.

“It shouldn’t be a loan. It should be help. Doesn’t make any sense,” Vaca said. “Whose fault is it? It’s not our fault.”

Other avenues utilized by business owners include reaching out to their individual insurance providers or filing a claims form with Con Edison, which was in charge of operating and maintaining the pipe involved. As of Monday, Con Edison had received 41 commercial claims, according to Bob McGee, a spokesman for the company.

Businesses that have utilized the aforementioned options are also eligible for the loan, Zach Bommer, a spokesman for the Renaissance EDC, said. If a business is concerned about the time it will take to get their claim satisfied, the loan could help them in the waiting period.

“Often insurance companies and local utilities might not cover all losses and it can take them weeks or more to make reimbursements,” Jessie Lee, the managing director at the company, said. “Our emergency loans are designed to get funding to small businesses as fast as possible to get them back on their feet with turnaround times of a week or less.”

Only three businesses have applied for a loan through the program, Bommer said. The application will remain open until Sept. 30.

Renee Typaldos, owner of a Greek steakhouse restaurant called Merakia at 5 W. 21st St., credited SBS for trying to help but deemed her losses to be greater than what the loan amount would be able to match.

Her restaurant, located off Fifth Avenue, overlooked a staging area set up by Con Edison workers Monday.

“Even though we were open, we had difficulty with pedestrians or cars through the street,” she said, adding that she was nonetheless grateful to the city and Con Edison for responding efficiently to the emergency.

“I’m just dying to get our guests back and take care of them and do what we do best. We are hospitality and we need people to be hospitable with,” she added.

Other food establishments in the area expressed concerns about how the presence of asbestos might have painted the neighborhood in a negative light.

Hiro Ono, who identified himself as a bookkeeper for Japanese brasserie Roki on 12 W. 21st St., said that the restaurant would rather wait for Con Edison to respond to its claims form and provide compensation.

As for business, “it’s much less,” he said. “The whole area was on the news that it’s closed for asbestos. Who would like to eat ramen here?”

Here are the 44 buildings that have been cleared of asbestos contamination, as updated by the city’s Office of Emergency Management on July 30.

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