Delayed by everything from the Great Depression to World War II to the city’s near bankruptcy in the 1970s, New York’s Second Avenue subway line is finally being built. Its eventual completion will make commutes easier, but its protracted construction is currently hellish for small businesses above the future tracks.
Work on the first phase is under way, and the $4.5 billion project is slated to be done in December 2016. Right now the streets above the slowly forming tunnel on Manhattan’s east side are full of equipment and debris. Periodic blasting shakes the neighborhood.
Temporary construction buildings take up a chunk of Second Avenue. With some rising two and three stories, they fully obscure many storefronts, not to mention obliterate parking.
Butcher and specialty food shop Schaller & Weber is among the businesses blotted out by the construction. It’s open and surviving on the strength of a long reputation, but Jeremy Schaller says some merchants nearby haven’t been able to cope.
“There was a restaurant that just went out of business on 84th Street,” he says. ”It was tough and he couldn’t make it and at the end he just had to close up.”
Schaller is the third generation of the family that has been selling sausage and other Teutonic foods for more than 75 years, going back to when the neighborhood was a German-American community. The subway project has hit his business too: Sales are down about 20 percent in each of the last two years.
“We’ve cut back our staff,” Schaller says. “People have retired and we just haven’t had a need to replace them.”
The family has talked about redoing the shop’s façade, but Schaller says it’s pointless while the store is hidden.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says work is proceeding as fast as possible and has made some moves to help local merchants. It paid for decorative banners to wrap construction fencing that urges people to shop at stores obscured by construction. Schaller and other store owners concede they look better than the fences alone.
The MTA is also doing something unusual. It’s taking locals on special tours of the subway work deep underground, so they can see for themselves just how hard the job is and why it takes time. MTA Capital Construction president Michael Horodniceanu leads tours himself.
Below the avenue, the cavern’s immensity is breathtaking. There's Earth-moving equipment with tires the size of people. But all the heavy metal looks tiny under the soaring ceilings of the tunnel. An army of hardhats steadily drills, digs and sometimes blasts through New York’s unforgiving geology.
A giant hole in the ground in front of Delizia 92 offers a glimpse of the subterranean work. Joe Pecora, the owner of the Second Avenue pizza and pasta restaurant, has been in the business 25 years. He took one of the underground tours.
Pecora was “wowed” and has a new appreciation for the work happening down there. But that doesn’t change the challenge he faces running a business behind ugly construction barriers. Like Schaller & Weber, Delizia 92 has seen sales drop.
“We used to have a lot of foot traffic,” Pecora recalls. “When the fences came up, you know, it was like you being in a jail, basically.”
He’s looking forward to the subway’s expected 2016 opening. The MTA predicts the new service will draw 200,000 riders a day from the crowded Lexington Avenue lines. Pecora believes foot traffic will rise 20 percent above what he was accustomed to before construction started.
Other merchants are also optimistic. The trick is hanging on through the tough times, something other stores haven’t been able to do.