Vacancies still mar 108th Street strip

Dunkin' recently moved into a new spot on 108th Street in Forest Hills, but only diagonally across the street from where it had been before.

Realtors and shopkeepers differ on how ‘Bukharian Broadway’ is faring

Shopping districts can see their fortunes change overnight.

Turns out the neighborhood stores people rely on for their dry cleaning, morning coffee and groceries are as vulnerable as the rest of us to traumas like the pandemic, nutty real-estate values and changing times.

The four blocks of 108th Street between 63rd Road and 65th Avenue that make up the main shopping area at the northern tip of Forest Hills were hit hard by Covid.

Foot traffic dwindled to nothing during the height of the lockdown.

In recent years, three banks — TD, HSBC and Citi — closed their corner branches for good, several fruit markets pulled down their gates, a big hair salon went dark.

Vacant storefronts began to look like missing teeth on the streetscape.

When people started to venture out again, city and state government regulations made doing business a nightmare of petty fines and immunization card checks.

But in this immigrant-rich corner of Forest Hills, where the 108th Street strip is known to some as Bukharian Broadway in homage to the many area residents with roots in Uzbekistan, things are starting to turn around, say the real-estate brokers.

“In general, that is happening all over,” said Sam Mizrahi, a commercial real estate agent who represents several empty properties on the strip.

Three spaces on 108th Street recently held by major banks, including, above, HSBC, remain vacant.

“A lot of neighborhood spaces are starting to get leased up. That’s because rents have come down.

“Rents are being reduced 20 to 30 percent in some cases and tenants are taking advantage of it.”

An indicator of how things are picking up is a vacant European delicacies store on the corner of 108th Street and 65th Avenue that closed last month.

Mizrahi found a new tenant, a convenience store, in just two weeks. “And,” he added, “I had multiple offers.”

Among the new stores opening — or on the verge of it — are a burger and falafel restaurant, Burger Spot, a nail salon, Lady Nail and Spa II, and a breakfast joint, Forest Hills Express Cafe. One recent move was by Dunkin’ — from a spot on the west side of 108th to one just steps away on the east side.

The new businesses coming in tend to be the kind of places that sell services, not package goods, said the brokers.

“No more clothing stores,” said Mizrahi. “Those days are over. The new places sell food, vegetables, are pharmacies.”

“It’s getting a lot more interest lately,” said Richard Senior, a broker for Ripco Real Estate who represents the now-closed TD Bank on the corner of 108th and 63rd Drive. “But it’s going to take some time.”

Store owners on the strip caution that the area is still not out of the woods.

“It’s not the same as it used to be,” said Gabriel Ysupov, the young owner of a barbershop called Fresh Looks on 108th near 64th Road.

“Businesses are still affected by the pandemic.”

Under several owners, a barber shop has existed at Ysupov’s location for 75 years. He bought it in 2019, changed the name and started catering to a younger crowd.

“The first year was good,” he said. “The second year was bad. The third year, neutral. No change.

“A lot of people are moving out,” he said. “There’s nobody new.”

“There used to be five nail places, two came back” after the pandemic restrictions were loosened, said Lenny Alaev, owner of Alain De’Lone Men’s Boutique, a formalwear store.

“Five beauty parlors, one left. Five or six banks, only one left.

“Business is coming back? No, there is nothing new,” he said.

Nevertheless, Alaev said, the end of the pandemic has been a boon, releasing a wave of pent-up demand for his inventory.

“I depend on the community — weddings, bar mitzvahs, celebrations,” he said.

“Now, I’m busy.”

It may take some time for the 108th Street strip to catch up.

Vacancies in the shopping areas of Rego Park and Jackson Heights, for instance, are rare these days, the brokers said.

On 108th, they said, there is still more supply than demand for retail space.

The three big bank vacancies — TD, Citi and HSBC — on the street also present a problem particular to the revival of the corridor.

The banks are still paying rent under old leases, said a source familiar with the area.

Until a new business comes along and agrees to pay more, the property owner — the Malachite Group, a large commercial real estate firm headquartered in Mineola, LI — is unlikely to rent to new tenants.

Messages left at Malachite’s main office requesting an interview last week were not returned.

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