For Some DUMBO Small Business Owners, Cheap Rent is Not Enough to Survive

For Some DUMBO Small Business Owners, Cheap Rent is Not Enough to Survive

Velvet Lattimore was excited when her small online accessories business started to take off. 

But she realized that if she wanted customers to take her seriously, she would need a brick-and-mortar store. She searched Google and found affordable storefronts for small-business owners at 145 Front Street in DUMBO. It was called The Shops and was leased by a company called Green Desk. 

What at the time seemed like a dream opportunity, turned out to be a lot more difficult than she expected. 

In 2011, Lattimore opened Vedazzling Accessories’ storefront and things got off to a good start. She attracted new customers and did well selling handbags, bracelets, earrings and necklaces. 

The Shops was comprised of boutiques like Lattimore’s, lining two narrow hallways. The customers were primarily locals, drawn by the shopping as well as a bar and movie theater in the same building. 

Then came Hurricane Sandy and while The Shops were not damaged, many local businesses were hit so hard they had to close. Two years later, Lattimore says, a very different DUMBO emerged, one that for her had lost its neighborhood feel. Gone were the bar and movie theater as well as all those local customers. Finally, this last summer she turned in her keys and shut her store. 

“Transplants, people who don’t come from a neighborhood, friendly community, don’t do local things,” she says. “They go to Manhattan. When you replace a community with a new one, they have to learn what it is.” 

It turns out, she was not alone. 

Turnover at The Shops is high, say other merchants, with some businesses lasting only a few months. And while Green Desk, they say, is a responsive landlord when it comes to issues of maintenance, the company does little to help draw customers. This problem is exacerbated by The Shops’ location, which is on the wrong side of the Manhattan Bridge, not in the center of hip and thriving DUMBO, but on the edge. 

The Struggle to Be Noticed

Old signage created by Lattimore and other shop owners. This sign has since been removed. *Courtesy of Velvet Lattimore

Walk into The Shops and you’ll find an eclectic mix of boutiques along three main, narrow corridors, some of which have street entrances. They range from women’s clothing and custom t-shirts to art galleries and radio stations. But outside, The Shops is easy to miss and most shops are accessible only after you enter the mall through the entrances on Front or Pearl streets. 

The Shops can feel like a ghost town. Owners say that there are seldom customers walking down the hallways. And oftentimes, store owners themselves are not even inside although store hours indicate that the shop should be open for business. 

“You walk down this hallway, and there’s silence. There’s no one home,” says Thea Grant, with her husband Nico, founder and owner of a jewelry store, Thea Grant.

The Shops opened in 2011, offering low rents for a small space in DUMBO. Lattimore says she paid $750 a month, a price much lower than other storefront options in the area and in Manhattan. The price included 24/7 access to the space, Wi-Fi and electricity. 

The building, according to property records, is owned by Chatov LLC, a real estate company associated with the Guttman family that has properties across Brooklyn. In 2001 and 2002, Joshua Guttman was sued by tenants at nearby 247 Water St. who claimed he was making the building uninhabitable in order to push them out. Eventually, the tenants and Guttman reached a settlement, according to court documents reviewed by the New York Times. When asked for comment, a spokeswoman for both companies said that Chatov LLC does not own Green Desk, but declined to comment further on the relationship between them or if the Guttman family owns Green Desk.

Rents at The Shops are still relatively low – $1500 for an expensive space, according to one shop owner. And Green Desk, say the merchants, makes sure the snow is shoveled and repairs are done, but it has been reluctant to take steps to improve business.

A few shops have put their individual signs on the street outside, although they often topple over each other, making them difficult to read. According to several shop owners, Green Desk told the merchants that it could not add permanent signage because 145 Front St. is part of a landmark building – any alteration or reconstruction on the building has to be approved by the Landmark Preservation Commission, which can be arduous. Not satisfied with this response, several store owners bought a sign that they placed on the door of the Front Street entrance with a description of what’s inside, according to Lattimore. 

The owners also asked Green Desk for help in creating a collective digital presence, perhaps a Facebook page or website. Green Desk, says Lattimore, declined this request as well, saying that this task was too much and their team had no one to manage it. So, Lattimore and a few store owners created a Facebook page for The Shops. This page only has 433 page likes. 

A Facebook user in December 2013 wrote on the page: “I wish more of the store owners made it their business to promote this location…This could be a great place for folks to find gems in Brooklyn!”

Green Desk says that The Shops being in a landmark building “creates limitations around the ability to promote, including affixing a business name to the windows, or signage hung from the building.” The company declined to additional comment on how they plan to further promote the space. 

The Key Advantage

Current signage outside of The Shops at 145 Front Street, located near the Front Street entrance. Photo by Kiana Mashont Murden.

Thea Grant has been at 145 Front St. for 12 years – and for 10 of those years, she has been renting studio space above The Shops. She and Nico opened their retail storefront in the spring of 2017. Grant is among the lucky merchants at The Shops. Her vintage jewelry shop has an entrance on Pearl Street – although technically it is a large window. She has a set of steps that she moves in front of the window so customers can make their way inside. She says she asked Green Desk if they could provide a permanent staircase and ramp but they declined, again citing the landmark status.

Grant recognizes that this temporary solution still gives her an advantage over some of the other shop owners.

“I don’t know many successful stores who don’t have frontage onto the street,” she says.

Vedazzling Accessories, Lattimore’s accessory store, did not have a street entrance. And while some shops are not reliant on foot traffic – such as Weeboids, a video gaming lounge currently located inside – those shops with entrances exclusively in The Shops corridors have the burden of getting a potential customer to wander inside first. Shop owners say that rents are higher at locations with street entrances or even windows like Grant’s. And those higher rents discourage them from moving until they can afford the increase. 

At the moment, there are five empty shop units with little information available nearby on how to lease the space. 

Street entrance or not, each owner must work daily to make their space at The Shops suitable for their business. As the struggle to acquire new customers continues, an issue looming over their heads will be that passersby may not even know that this collection of shops is inside the narrow corridor on 145 Front Street at the edge of DUMBO.

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