Welcome Retailers Going Hungry on Purchase Street
By Robin Jovanovich
One month into the pandemic shutdown, the City of Rye, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, started working on a plan to save Rye’s businesses. Business owners were surveyed on whether they would be in favor of closing off Purchase Street to vehicular traffic from Thursday afternoon through Sunday night or all week long for a trial period. The proposal was met with enthusiasm by restaurant and retail owners, the majority of whom preferred the first option.
When Purchase Plaza was unveiled in late June and restaurants were able to offer comfortably distant outdoor dining, residents were indeed excited to leave their homes and their kitchens, see people they hadn’t seen for months, and eat a meal made by someone else. But, oddly, they didn’t flock to the newly reopened retail businesses, many of which stayed open late hoping to attract strollers.
What began as a plea for help from a handful of merchants, after the Council decided to extend the life of the Plaza from early July to early August, has grown to a groundswell with last week’s announcement of a second extension to October 12. In a matter of 48 hours, a petition to reopen Purchase Street was circulated and signed by 47 business owners — barber shops, hairdressers, jewelers, nail and hair salons, dry cleaners, tailors, food shops, a restaurant, every women’s fashion boutique, the wine store, pet stores, the bookstore, and this newspaper.
In the last few weeks we’ve spoken to as many business managers and owners as the Chamber of Commerce but heard a different and haunting refrain: closing the street has crippled retail.
When the City reopened a section of the south end of the street in July, business owners were heartened. But when shop owners at the north end requested that the City replicate the arrangement, they were told it couldn’t be done. City Manager Greg Usry told the paper that creating an entry from Purdy Avenue to Purchase would only increase the congestion in Municipal Lot #2 behind Chase Bank.
Meanwhile, more and more residents have said they are avoiding going downtown because of the difficulty of getting through the traffic tie-ups and the never-ending utility work on and off Theodore Fremd Avenue, now the main artery to town. “One day, Central Avenue is closed,” said a longtime resident. “The next day, Theodore Fremd is under reconstruction and you can’t exit or enter Elm Place. It’s maddening.”
While residents like the idea of a pedestrian mall in principle, especially if it helps both retail and restaurants, they are not keen on the concrete barriers, the bollards, the oversized and unappealing signage. Suffice it to say, it could be more attractive and inviting.
Wine at Five owner Cai Palmer said he doesn’t understand why the east end of Elm Place needed to be closed off “so that two restaurants could put out tables and could create a skateboard park for kids.” In his view, the plan was “slaphazard”. He’d like to see pro bono designers brought in to create streetscapes like those in Southport, Conn. and Greenport, Long Island.
Down the street, Eric Moy of Fong’s, one of Rye’s oldest businesses, remarked, “The Monday before this plan was put into place, the town was packed. I’m told there was not a $1,000 sales day at any shop by the second week.” He continued, “Most merchants are now four months behind. The mom-and-pop shops can’t hold up. What is the driving force behind keeping the Plaza open? Yes, Poppy’s has attracted a healthy morning crowd but there is not a big lunch crowd most days and some restaurants aren’t even taking full advantage of the extra space.”
Ellie Zieminski was the owner of two successful women’s boutiques — one in Larchmont, the other in Charleston, S.C. — when she decided last year to open a third, Love Bella, in Rye. “When I chose Rye, it was because it had a thriving downtown with foot traffic. No longer. People are shopping in Larchmont, not here.” She added, “The Plaza backfired in Rye, and we reached out right away to the Chamber of Commerce for help. Are we going to help restaurants, which all of us merchants support, to the detriment of retail?”
Angela Guitard, who has had a long and successful career in retail, the last ten years as owner of an eponymous women’s fashion boutique, said she was compelled to start a petition because when the Chamber conducted its second survey and declared that the vote to keep the Plaza open had support from merchants as well as restaurants, far too many fellow business owners shared the fact that they were not even contacted for the survey.
“I’ve written to the Mayor and not received a response,” she said. “We need help or we won’t survive, and that will mean that many of the restaurants won’t survive either because who wants to visit an empty town?”
Meanwhile, more businesses are out of business — Jack Rabbit, love2BFit, Stanley’s Custom Tailoring — and several are decamping — Capital One bank, Jos. A. Bank.
In an interview with the Mayor before we went to press, he explained that “The Council voted to keep Purchase Street a pedestrian plaza until mid-October, and gave the City Manager discretion to improve upon the plan in ways that won’t hurt restaurants and might help retailers.”
Aware of continuing “retail dissatisfaction”, Cohn said the City will do everything in its power to help but “we don’t know if we will save a single shop.”