The avenues of El Barrio constitute a retail desert, where shops charge unwarranted prices for goods of dubious quality. But, with Target on tap, soon there may be higher caliber doormats, cutlery, and Halloween costumes galore for East Harlemites.
Sandwiched up against FDR Drive at the site of the old Washburn Wire factory, the 1.2 million square foot East River Plaza on East 116th Street is under construction at a time when the credit crunch and the equities nosedive present exceptionally unfavorable market conditions.
But, the reality of the economic downturn presents an opportunity for retailers that offer higher-quality goods at consistently low prices.
“Target is a perfect store to open up here in this type of economic situation. It’s not like they’re Neiman Marcus,” said Mark Olson, construction manager for RC Dolner, which is building the East River Plaza complex.
Olson estimated that the Target’s grand opening would take place around October 2009.
Target’s breakneck expansion across America seems undaunted by dismal economic forecasts.
From Wasilla, Alaska, to Alpharetta, Georgia, the Minneapolis-based Target chain opened 45 stores last Sunday alone, following news that September sales were up 2.5% - when the rest of the retail sector had its biggest contraction in three years.
With a total of 1,685 stores in 48 states, “Target offers a strong brand and value message, with high-quality products at affordable prices,” said spokesperson Anna Anderson.
At East River Plaza, the mega-retailer looks to transplant suburbia into the ghetto by sublimating local infrastructure into its voguish bulls-eye.
Generating new tax monies at a time when the city is becoming increasingly cash-strapped, East River Plaza promises to be a “unique shopping experience…and a catalyst for future economic development,” according to the developer, Blumenfeld Development Group, a Syosset N.Y.-based company that is partnering with Forest City Ratner on the project.
“I am always willing to reach out to make developers and those businesses coming into the area be more responsive to the community,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, councilwoman from East Harlem.
According to the developer, the project is generating 2,000 permanent retail jobs and 2,000 construction jobs.
Target promises around 200 jobs, which will be opened up first to area residents via local media, said spokesperson Anna Anderson.
Moreover, through its charitable wing, the corporation said that it gives more than $3 million per week to local communities for grants and special programs.
Last Thursday, Target awarded $14.9 million to schools nationwide, a small chunk of which was reaped by dozens of East Harlem schools who are participating in the Take Charge of Education program, according to spokesperson Harold Reid.
The company also has honed its community relations with the October 4th dedication of the Target East Harlem Community Garden, in conjunction with Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project.
Giant red metal umbrellas covered with solar panels greet green-seekers who enter the East 117th Street garden. In addition to the solar energy, giraffe-like steel masts can be cranked out to harness wind power. The electricity then powers the light bulbs of a community gardening shed, as well as the irrigation system that uses harvested rainwater.
While the goal was to open the space to anyone, head gardener Callie Yarbrough stated the need to keep out riff-raff from the unspoiled, corporate-financed plot.
On Sunday, the Diaz family elected to continue their weekly domino game in the non-Target park down the street. The son littered his Lays bag, and the grandfather stumbled to and fro with a Bud Light, both of which would not mesh well with the Target garden or its stewardess.
“The New York Restoration Project’s vision is to create a more aesthetic and neutral place. They argue that this is more appealing to a wider audience but I have spoken to them and told them that I disagree with this perspective,” said Councilwoman Mark-Viverito.
“I want to ensure that the organization is respectful of the existing residents and making the place a welcoming environment for them and that the garden is not seen as one that is only for the new residents arriving into the community,” she added.
The cushy Target garden space will be used to display Target lawn furniture starting in December, according to Yarbough.
The success of the Target garden has inspired Yarbough and her gardening friends to work with Home Depot on another garden on the same block.
“I’m looking forward to Costco, because then we won’t have to go all the way to Jersey or the Bronx,” said Yarbrough, who lives next to the Target garden.
Originally, Target was expected to fill the second story of the East River Plaza building anchored by Home Depot. However, there is rampant speculation in the neighborhood that the home improvement giant is seeking to exit its 30-year lease, leaving the project with a gaping 110,000 square foot hole.
While Best Buy and Marshalls are expected to round out the project, rumors abound that Costco will fill the Home Depot slot. Sources that wished not to be revealed also mentioned the possibility of Home Depot subletting their space to another tenant, such as Loews. Blumenfeld Development Group principal David Blumenfeld would not comment on the issue.
The nearest existing Marshalls is nine blocks north from East River Plaza on East 125th Street, and the nearest Best Buy is 30 blocks south on East 86th Street.
Although Target already operates stores in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, the East River Plaza store will be the first in Manhattan – albeit in an area in dire need of decent retail.
With 485,000 square feet of prime retail space and a 1,248-space parking garage, the project will contribute traffic to a community with already congested and polluted arterial roadways and one of the highest asthma rates in the country.
Until the 2nd Avenue subway line opens around 2020, automobiles will be the main way to access East River Plaza.
“The more people they bring in, the better for us. Traffic is what we need,” said Gordon Telford, an employee at Benjamin Moore paints on First Avenue.
“It behooves Target to have easy and convenient access to the site. We are committed to where we build and take pride in the location that we select,” said Target spokeswoman Anna Anderson. She added, “Redevelopment in this community is drawing eyes and ears to the area, making it a great opportunity for a longstanding partnership.”
With a lack of sympathy for retailers that over-charge for clothes, chips, and cigarettes, Target is sprucing up retail options where worthy shops are few and far between.
With the sluggish tide of the area’s transformation, Target represents a thrifty and Bohemian turn for El Barrio.
Although some residents bemoan the tide of gentrification, many wonder if this will slow due to Wall Street woes. Less upward pressure on housing costs might please an area that remains skeptical of bourgeois delights and urbane big box retail, even if offered up at low prices.
“It used to be such a quiet neighborhood,” said Columbia Altieri, a retired teacher at P.S. 112.
“But who knows when they'll be finished Target. I probably will be gone by then.”