After Almost a Decade, Small Businesses in the Second Avenue Subway Construction Zone Gear Up For an End to Construction

Lucy Ha

Construction site of the Second Avenue Subway’s 72nd St station; dozens of small businesses are fenced off by construction work

After enduring nine years of the Second Avenue subway (SAS) construction, Heidelberg, which has been serving German food in Yorkville for more than a century, is getting its sidewalk back this week. In the past five years, its view was obstructed by construction and its outdoor café was taken away because of the sidewalk closure. As the opening date of SAS’s first section in December draws near, the neighborhood is slowly seeing an end to the construction.

“It’s an absolute, total relief,” said Eva Matischak, 63, owner of Heidelberg.

Phase one of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) subway project, an extension to the Q line from Lexington Avenue/63rd Street station to the Second Avenue/96th Street, began in April 2007. Since then, more than 40 percent of small businesses have closed down due to disruptions caused by construction work, according to the 2015 data released by the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce (MCC). There are currently 22 retail spaces, which have been up for lease for the past three to five months. Between the 85th and 86th streets, only five out of twelve enterprises, including Heidelberg, have managed to stay in business since 2007. Other businesses have had to alter their business models and innovate in order to survive.

According to eleven business owners and employees, the SAS construction has hindered their revenue between 20 and 40 percent. As new restaurants have struggled to get dine-in customers, they’ve shifted their focus on delivery and take-out service.

A-Jiao Sichuan opened on the Second Avenue three years ago when the construction had already started. Cherry Li, 25, a cashier at A-Jiao, said the restaurant had been operating on average two to three tables during lunch and dinnertime for the past year. “We’re just like a take-out company now,” she added.

Pita Grill came to the Upper East Side five years ago. According to its waitress, Brigitte Johnson, 21, online orders from Seamless have been their main source of revenue for the past year. During her shifts between 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the diner receives on average thirty online orders.

Yet not every restaurant can afford to run an efficient delivery service. Matischak said Heidelberg had given up on their delivery due to traffic delays caused by construction. According to her, having a stable dine-in clientele is still the key to success for restaurants.

Jimmy Kumar, 53, owner of Discount Depot housewares store, also had to adopt new strategies to save his business. In addition to hardware, he began to sell beer, installed lotto lottery machines, and frequently gave out discounts for the past five years. “It helped a little, but not much,” he said.

Despite many challenges, the authorities and majority of businesses are hopeful the new subway line will transform the neighborhood. “At the end of the day, this is a great project for the city,” said Jessica Walker, President of the MCC. “It’s going to bring a lot more traffic and [the small businesses] know it.”