Merchants in a Kew Gardens retail strip atop a Long Island Rail Road overpass want years of delayed repairs iced out before the winter, when they say the lack of insulation leaves people shivering and water freezing in pipes that are prone to shatter, exacerbating the damage sustained from leaky roofs.
The businesses say the LIRR has been issuing notices to the management company contracted to maintain and lease the storefronts, but a tougher stance is needed to end the years-long saga.
"The railroad sent a letter, sort of an ultimatum, to Zee N Kay Management," said Nathalie Reid, who owns Thyme Natural Market, at 81-22 Lefferts Blvd., about a notice issued last month. "We’ve been sort of sitting here holding our breath to find out what’s going on, and no one has gotten back to us."
"If we have another bad winter and our pipes freeze and they start exploding again, then we’re going to be back to square one," said Reid. "We would like them to at least address something to do with the plumbing."
The railroad has placed Zee N Kay Management on notice of default of parts of its agreement with LIRR, received a response from the firm; and the two parties are now engaged in negotiations, according to a railroad spokesman.
But this is not the first time talk of bargaining has born limited results, according to Pradeep Agarwal, who opened an accounting firm in 2004 on the overpass, which supports Lefferts Boulevard between Austin and Grenfell streets.
Agarwal said he and other businesses had less severe concerns with the last management company, which contributed to the LIRR opting to look for an alternative leasing partner when that agreement expired in 2010. So the railroad issued a request for proposals, which stipulated that the new management company would need to repair the roofs, clean and repoint — or reseal — the brick and terra cotta facades, repair and refurbish the interiors and upgrade utility systems and services within the first few years of the agreement, according to Agarwal, who submitted a proposal to handle the leasing, which was not selected.
In March 2010, the LIRR signed a 10-year agreement with Zee N Kay, to handle three buildings on the overpass that, at the time, contained more than a dozen businesses, according to a copy of the agreement. The document noted that Zee N Kay’s annual compensation to the LIRR would begin at $120,600 and increase to $187,119. The businesses collectively paid about $300,000 annually in rent when Zee N Kay signed on, which was expected to increase to about $515,000, according to Agarwal, who put together the calculations while organizing with fellow business owners.
But the troubles continued under Zee N Kay’s tenure, merchants said. Although the firm has done patchwork repairs on the roofing, it has not been replaced, according to business owners.
Water continues to stream into Thyme Natural Market during storms and sometimes shoots up through the toilet, according to Reid. After paying high electric bills, Reid said she installed insulation. But during the winter, water pipes still burst, prompting her to cut off the water and close the kitchen, which she said can cost her up to $1,000 a day in lost sales.
"At the very beginning, the management company wouldn’t even send anybody over. They used to tell my husband and I, ‘Oh, call a plumber,’" said Reid, who lives in Kew Gardens. "I’m just fed up."
Muhammed Arif, who moved his Reo Chemists to the overpass in 2011, said the management company dispatches someone to spray white paint over patches that appear on the ceiling when the roof leaks. He spent years asking the firm to address a drafty wall and windows, and only recently has the management company taken action by covering panes with sheets and stuffing insulation around the frame, he said.
"When the train passes, there’s so much pressure and wind comes in," said Arif, who spent a year and $300,000 renovating the storefront before relocating his nearby pharmacy in the space, where he still works next to a space heater. "It bothers me in the winter time. I can’t feel my hands."
The future of the retail strip was complicated by the LIRR’s stance that the overpass was not structurally sound and its plan to knock it down after leases expired in 2020. After that idea provoked backlash, the LIRR announced this summer that it would spend up to $1 million repairing platforms supporting the overpass and retail buildings.
Storefronts have become vacant during Zee N Kay Management’s tenure, the merchants said. Early on, a small news and convenience shop closed when it could not afford the higher rent requested by the firm, Reid added. A jewelry store that was struggling also closed years ago, according to Reid.
And PK’s Farm Fresh, which opened in 2014, closed up shop in the summer of 2017, after dealing with electrical issues that left its produce, cheese, meats and other products damaged, according to Agarwal, whose brother launched the business.
"It used to be shining in the night; it shined bright," said Agarwal, who lives in Kew Gardens. "Now you come, and it’s a ghost town."
Zee N Kay Management’s Kunal Kapoor said the firm was involved in eviction cases against businesses that have not been paying rent and described merchants’ concerns as groundless complaints coming from those involved in litigation. He said the management company was permitted to pass off some obligations to subtenants and had performed required work, including roof repairs.
In December 2016, a representative for the LIRR sent the management company a notice saying it had commissioned a report detailing repairs the firm was obligated to perform. Then in September 2018, the LIRR sent a notice of default to the company saying it owed $10,481.58 that needed to be paid within seven days and that it needed to conduct repairs within five days. The management company was given until October 4 to address the situation, and merchants said they are unsure how the situation has evolved since then.
The LIRR may be able to conduct repairs and bill the management company for them or scrap the agreement entirely if Zee N Kay is found to be in default of the contract, according to a copy of the leasing arrangement.
And some merchants want the LIRR to explore this option.
"Fix it immediately," said Agarwal. "If you’re suffering now, what’s the use in getting medicine after two years?"
The LIRR declined to comment on the record.
Kapoor said his company had not always gotten clear direction from the MTA’s real estate team and a related contractor about repair obligations.
Correction: A prior version of this story inaccurately indicated Kapoor did not respond to requests for comment, when the requests were not properly directed.