An Ethnic Downtown With Many Retail and Fast Food Chains

For many years downtown revitalization experts lamented that large, ethnic downtowns — those with lots of African American and Hispanic shoppers — were being avoided by major retail chains.

That is certainly no longer the case. Here, in New York City, one of the hottest retail locations is along 125th Street in Harlem. Many retail and fast food chains are also occupying important storefronts in the outer borough downtowns such as Jamaica Center in Queens, Downtown Brooklyn and Fordham Road in the Bronx. They are also opening in strong neighborhood shopping districts such as Jerome Avenue in the Bronx and and Corona Plaza in Queens.

Below is a list of the national and regional retail and fast food chains that I found on a visit yesterday to Jamaica Center.

I first went to this commercial district with my mother to buy shoes back in 1949, which was toward the end of its “Golden Age.” I continued to shop there occasionally for sports equipment and sneakers until I went away to college in 1958. It was not until the early 1980s that I returned to carry out consulting assignments for Regional Plan Association and the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC). Though my involvement in the revitalization of this district ended in the early 1990s, I have continued to visit every few years to take photos and gauge its progress. It’s just two miles from my home office.

The revitalization of Jamaica Center has been a long process, starting back around 1968 with the creation of the GJDC. Over a billion dollars have since gone into the revitalization of this commercial center, paying for such things as the re-routing of a subway line (E train), tearing down an elevated line, building York College, the construction of a one million SF Social Security Building, new court buildings, building a terminus for a monorail link to JFK, etc.

By the early 19980s the quality of the retailers was ebbing and this trend culminated with the closing of two major department stores, Macy’s and Gertz. White shoppers from the northern and western parts of Jamaica Center’s trade area stopped visiting, choosing instead to drive east to the shopping malls in Nassau County.

Many of the other neighborhoods in the trade area had African American households with relatively high annual incomes for Queens. Cambria Heights, for example, recently had a median household income of $69,030, while the median income for Queens was $49,780. Many of the residents in these neighborhoods were civil service workers and teachers, often in dual income households. Though large numbers of these residents passed through Jamaica Center each weekday to use the subway on their trips to and from work, they, too, avoided shopping there because the retailing had come to focus on low income and teenage markets and the area had developed a reputation for street crime and drug use and sale. Nevertheless, the pedestrian traffic along Jamaica Avenue continued to be a “beehive of activity” and some of the merchants were doing $s/SF that rivaled those of retailers in some of Manhattan’s best locations.

I was greatly encouraged by my recent visit and feel that the end game, the “take off” phase of Jamaica Center’s revitalization is in sight. The primary reason for my optimism is the recent announcement of a major project that will bring over 300 market rate housing units into the downtown, with a number of similar projects on the drawing boards. Another reason is that the retailing’s strength now seems to be more than shops featuring “urban wear,” with chains having a strong middle class appeal opening, e.g., Home Depot, Marshall’s, Zale’s, Nine West, Old Navy. The teens will still shop in Jamaica, but now their parents might as well.

The changing nature of the district’s retailing is also, in my opinion, reflected in the new store facades that have been built in recent years. They are much more attractive, with smaller signage, a better sense of proportion and though the colors used might offend some with Main Street design sensibilities, they are often still very pleasing.

Another indicator of this district’s strength is that commercial rents along Jamaica Avenue recently have reached as high as $150/SF for choice locations.

In the list below I have noted some of the chains that were open in Jamaica Center and have since closed. It should be noted that all of these closures involved chains that were having overall problems.

At the end of the list I have provided a link to a web-based photo album that contains photos of Jamaica Center’s retail chains.

National and Regional Chains in Jamaica Center January 25, 2008

Payless (2 stores)
Gothic Furniture
Quiznos Sub
UPS Store
Java’s Brewin
Game Stop
Burger King
Taco Bell
Pizza Hut
Dunkin Donuts
McDonald’s (2)
Duane Reade
Footlocker Kids (converted to Kids)
Nine West
Radio Shack
Conway (2)
Home Depot
Fabco Shoes (2)
Footco USA
Jimmy Jazz
Toys ‘R Us (closed, chain in trouble)
Kids ‘R Us (closed, chain in trouble)
Wertheimers (closed, chain in trouble)
Jennifer Convertibles
Ashley Stewart
Tick Tock
Dr Jay’s
Cookie’s Department Store
Porta Bella
Parade of Shoes (closed, chain in trouble)
Athlete’s Foot
Shoppers World
Old Navy
The Children’s Place
Gap (closed, chain in trouble)