Restaurants, Merchants Comment on Closure of Bottom of Greenwich Ave

On June 12 Greenwich reduced the closure of the bottom of Greenwich Ave to vehicular traffic from two blocks to just one: the block from Grigg Street south to Railroad Ave.

This week, at Zyn’s News & Cigars, at 345 Greenwich Ave, Piyush Sheth, who has been in business 25 years, said he was relieved that his block had reopened to traffic and parking.

“It’s been positive since thankfully they listened,” he said. “The First Selectman was proactive and really paid attention. He’s doing a good job.”

Mr. Sheth said he was delighted for the restaurants to have “nodes,” also referred to as “bump outs,” particularly Bistro V, located next door to his news and cigar shop.

“We are all in this together,” he said. “This is a good idea overall for the town and for the Avenue.”

Outdoor dining on Greenwich Avenue has been such a draw that on any given night people wait in lines for tables sometimes up to an hour.

And, as of this week, restaurants are also allowed to offer indoor seating with restrictions for social distancing.

“It’s been fantastic,” said Mauricio “Mo” Andrade, the general manager of South Bay at 403 Greenwich Ave, who described the outdoor dining as the silver lining of Covid-19.

Andrade said he interacts with all his guests and learns where they are from.

“Most of them are from New York,” he said. “This is an opportunity for Greenwich to showcase its best. It’s becoming a destination.”

South Bay is relatively new restaurant, having opened two years ago. Part of the JS Restaurant Group, the menu focuses on local ingredients, fresh seafood and home made pasta.

“Being outside raises awareness of South Bay,” he said. “And we have our sister restaurant, Harvest, which has been here for 9 years. We’re happy to see everyone sharing guests and hopping from one place to another. There’s enough (business) for everyone. It’s a really good vibe.”

Bump out in front of Bistro V accommodates outdoor dining while the road remains open to traffic. Photo: Leslie Yager

At the bottom of the Avenue, where art galleries are sprinkled among the restaurants, Tiffany Benincasa, who owns C Parker Gallery, and Lee Milazzo, who owns Samuel Owen Gallery, both said they intend to embrace the closure of their block despite the removal of parking.

“It’s wonderful. The fact we can create a promenade where people grab  a bite and then go for a stroll around and look into an art gallery or any other retail stores reminds me of the promenade in Santa Monica,” Benincasa said. “It’s making the best of a bad situation.  There is no perfect solution because there’s no solution to Covid.”

Benincasa said prior to the pandemic, she had launched a mobile art gallery, and it proved invaluable when her gallery was closed. Customers have a conversation with Benincasa on the phone and give her an idea of what they’re looking for. From there, she brings a selection to their home.

In addition, she said she planned to take advantage of the town allowing sidewalk shopping and had ordered outdoor displays.

“I think it’s helpful that we can use the parking spaces for displays. We’re putting out rolling racks with photography fastened to them. Any opportunity to market, we will,” she said. “People can browse as if it’s an outdoor art exhibition.”

Across the street at Samuel Owen Gallery, Mr. Milazzo said the closure of the bottom block of Greenwich Avenue had resulted in increased foot traffic to his gallery.

“They’re coming in and buying things,” he said. “I had no idea it was even in the works until two days before it happened. I was pleasantly surprised by the concept and it took off so quickly.”

“I didn’t want a blank space outside the gallery, so we bought low chairs and tables, lanterns and plants, and as I was putting the chairs out, people were already sitting in them ordering drinks. It was instantaneous. Now we’re staying open later because the 5-9pm crowd is awesome.”

Lee Milazzo, Samuel Owen Gallery

“We partnered with Little Beet Table next door, and have shared the space in front of our gallery with them,” Milazzo said. “We created a fun, casual lounge where people can have drinks while looking at the art in our gallery. It feels like a gallery opening every night.”

While restaurants are buzzing, and galleries are benefiting from the pedestrian traffic, other merchants on the lower block of the Ave said their situation is less rosy.

Umberto Pitagora, a bespoke tailor with a shop over East End restaurant, where a line forms nightly for dinner, said he moved his business from Wilton to Greenwich Ave two years ago to be closer to his home.

He said that while the restaurants were benefiting from the street closure, taking away parking from merchants and services like his was unfair.

“It’s only good for the restaurants. Everyone else suffers,” he said. “I celebrated 50 years in business on May 5. I was ready to do a nice party, but I couldn’t do it.”

Pitagora said he is poised for safe social distancing is his shop because customers make an appointment before they come.

“There’s never two customers at a time,” he said. “My contact with customers is very limited. I wear a mask and when I measure. It’s a few seconds in front, and a few seconds at the side. I move around.”

Unfortunately, he said, his customers have to park blocks away and carry their suits and hangers.

“Restore the parking. The barricades look like a war zone with the highway dividers. It’s not fair to all the other businesses.”

Umberto Pitagora, bespoke tailor

Mike and Gail Papa who run Michaelangelo, possibly the last mom and pop shop on the Ave, have operated their custom engraving business for over 40 years. The Papas said they are not benefiting from the continued closure of their block to traffic and parking.

Mr. Papa, a master engraver, said his custom gifts are popular for weddings and graduations, and that April, May and June are his busiest months – even more than Christmas – and that unlike the art galleries peppered among the restaurants, the pedestrian traffic was not benefiting his business.

Though First Selectman Fred Camillo organized a two-way entrance and exit to temporary parking behind Michaelangelo, Mr. Papa said, sadly, it was not doing the trick.

“People come to pick up, not to browse,” Gail said.

“There’s no signs, and people feel funny turning the wrong way up Greenwich Ave,” Mike said, adding that the crowds outside East End don’t cross the street either.

“There’s a 40 foot concrete barrier wall that they have to walk all the way around to come over here,” he said, going on to describe the row of Jersey barriers as “the Berlin wall.”

“We think that closing this block has really hurt retail. It’s fabulous for the restaurants, but people aren’t coming down past the barrier to come in. People say, ‘I’ll shop at the top where I can park and pop in.’ They’re doing gangbuster business up there. We’re dead.”

Gail Papa, Michaelangelo Engraved Gifts

The Papas said they hoped their block would reopen to traffic and the restaurants would operate with bump outs like they do in the upper portions of the Avenue.

The Papas said landlords have a role in the equation.

“I wish all the landlords would help the retailers with a little rent decrease,” Gail said. “The landlords are the ones who will determine the future sustainability for every retailer.”

On the block that was closed for a week and then reopened (between Havemeyer and Grigg), Jason Palmer, owner of Petticoat Lane at 347 Greenwich Ave, said he was relieved that his block had reopened. He said with the bump outs for outdoor dining on his block, restaurant patrons were beneficial to his business.

“At first I was really upset. When they came around and 4:30pm on a Friday handing out a letter saying they’d close the Avenue on Monday I flipped,” he recalled. “No one knew this was happening.”

Photo: Katie Turk

Palmer said the First Selectman called him on Monday morning and listened to his feedback, which he appreciated. Palmer said his block was only closed for one week, so he couldn’t comment on whether his business was impacted. In fact, he reports new customers from as far afield as Westchester, New Jersey and Long Island.

Palmer said at Petticoat Lane, which primarily sells lingerie, sleepwear and swimwear, he can hardly keep bathing suits in stock.

Still, Palmer said, his numbers are down 38%. “That’s still probably better than 95% of stores on Greenwich Ave,” he said, adding that his prognosis for retail was grim.

“With merchants, you’re going to see a third to a half of them close by Christmas.”

Jason Palmer, Petticoat Lane

Palmer also cited the role that landlords play.

“Some landlords are waiving two months rent, some are deferring rent. But rents are still high, and their property taxes are high,” he said. “The fact is not all landlords care. In future, maybe people will pick their landlord based on how they behave now. They’ll ask, ‘What did you do for your tenants when things got really bad?'”

Palmer said he felt badly for the merchants at the foot of the Ave, which is still shut down to traffic.

“Maybe just do bump outs for restaurants or boutiques if they want to,” he suggested. “And open the road back up.”

For his part Fred Camillo said he is working to make as many people happy as possible. He estimated that 80% of businesses are pleased with the closure.

He said when the owners of Diane’s Books on Grigg Street complained that their customers couldn’t park on Greenwich Ave, he reopened the block between Havemeyer and Grigg, and reopened Grigg Street.

He said the book store’s other complaints had been addressed, including moving tables from an adjacent establishment blocking the book store, but that their request for dedicated parking spots was not in the cards.

“Dedicating parking spaces just for the book store would not be fair to the other businesses,” he said. “I don’t know what went on before the pandemic with the book store, but we’ve been willing and open to all suggestions for the book store and other merchants.”

Richards at 359 Greenwich Avenue. Photo: Leslie Yager

Susan Fleisher, who has the unique perspective of having been a retailer on the Ave and is now a landlord there, said she was relieved when her block reopened.

Fleisher said her father came to Greenwich in 1956 as a German immigrant and Holocaust survivor, and bought Richards in Greenwich Avenue. She joined her father in the business in 1980, and together they expanded the operation until 1995 when they sold it to the Mitchell family. Now Fleisher is the landlord.

She said because of her experience as both a retailer and landlord – and she is also a realtor in town – she has a unique perspective.

“Retail without parking is a killer,” she said, adding that she thinks the bump outs for restaurants are great, but shutting an entire block of parking should be avoided.

“I have had a vision for many years that the plaza in front of Restoration Hardware, the former post office, would be an ideal place to have musicians come and entertain on the summer evenings,” she suggested.

Commercial realtor Diane Roth from Allied Properties said the leases are out for a lot of spaces.

“We encourage landlords to try and keep the tenants that are in place by either deferring or giving free rent. If they rented to a new person, they’re going to want some free rent up front anyway, so you might as well keep the tenant you have that’s paid rent and been loyal to you so far,” she said.

Closing sign at Shari’s Place. June 2020 Photo: Leslie Yager

See also:

Selectmen Modify Greenwich Ave Vehicle Closure; Diane’s Books Says “We Will Not Survive”

P&Z Watch: All Eyes on Greenwich Ave Parking for Second Floor Uses

Camillo, Floren Lead CT Lt Governor Bysiewicz down Lower Greenwich Ave, Closed to Cars

Selectmen Approve All-Day Closure of Bottom of the Ave, Plus 5 “Nodes”