As the 18-month L train shutdown looms, commuters aren’t the only ones bracing for the change. Businesses are worried that the steady flow of customers will slow to a trickle when the subway line will no longer be an option for people visiting Williamsburg.
Williamsburg has few alternatives to the L subway train, and businesses are expecting a hit when the full shutdown takes place. This area of Brooklyn has recently seen an economic boom, not just because of renewed interest in living there but also because it is now seen as a destination spot for tourists who would otherwise stay in Manhattan.
One of the Williamsburg draws is Smorgasburg, a food festival started in 2011 by the people of Brooklyn Flea. On weekends from April to November, Brooklynites and non-Brooklynites flock to North Seventh Avenue and Kent Street in Williamsburg for the “Woodstock of eating,” as it has been called by The New York Times.
“At Saturday’s Smorgasburg especially, it’s a ton of people who read about it on food blogs or travel guides. … It’s a lot of tourists at Saturday Smorg, so I’m worried that without the convenience of the L being there and without it being super accessible, it’s going to be a tough draw,” said Matt Gallira, owner of Big Mozz, a mobile food business that has a stand at Smorgasburg. “But at the same time, I think Smorgasburg in particular is a little bit recession-proof. People will find a way to get here because it’s a unique thing, so I’m not that worried.”
Matt Lindemulder, one of the owners of Porchetta, said his commute from East Williamsburg to Porchetta’s brick-and-mortar location in the East Village won’t be too tough since he rides a bicycle, but he added, “[the shutdown is] definitely going to have an impact.”
“I’d rather have them do the three-year limited service back-and-forth as opposed to cutting it for a …year and a half, which is just kind of insane,” Lindemulder said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he also wonders if an 18-month shutdown is necessary to repair the Canarsie Tunnel. The tunnel under the East River was damaged by flooding caused by the storm surge during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“We have to push the MTA to confirm, do they really need to do it that way?” de Blasio said during an interview on WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show.” “Are there better alternatives and what are they going to do to maximize the alternatives?”
“This decision, although I’m sure it has a practical underlying rationale, announcing it without a plan to deal with the impact is troubling to me,” de Blasio said. “It’s a long time, and we’re certainly going to push hard to see, does it really have to be so long? Is there another way to go about this?”
MTA did not respond to requests for comment.
MTA said in the July 25 announcement that it spoke to 11 community boards and considered input from people living along the L train’s route before making this decision.
Brick-and-mortar businesses, like 3-year-old record store and concert venue Rough Trade on North Ninth Street, are expecting the shutdown to be “pretty impactful,” but Rough Trade store co-manager George Flanagan said he is trying to stay optimistic.
“Record Store Day in 2015, the L was shut down,” Flanagan recalled. “That said, it didn’t kill us for the day. We survived … maybe we would’ve made 10 grand more that day, but it didn’t completely destroy us.”
Rajeev Yerneni, owner of Parantha Alley which does not have a brick-and mortar location and relies on festivals like Smorgasburg, said he also experienced the L shutdown in 2015.
“Last time when the L closed for a few weeks, [Smorgasburg management] put special buses … and they said they promoted the [East River Ferry], so that helped, but [business] decreased by like 20 percent, 25 percent,” he said.
Yerneni also warned that food vendors are “finicky,” so if the cost of doing business in Williamsburg goes up, the vendors might flee for more economically sound – and geographically accessible – locations.
Galen Marchetti lives in Hell’s Kitchen and visited Rough Trade for the first time on Saturday. He said he enjoys going to the gym Brooklyn Zoo, but that will be a distant memory once the L line stops running.
“I’m screwed,” Marchetti said while laughing. “That’s game-over, because I work in the Meatpacking District, and the gym is like four stops in once you go across the East River, so yeah, that’s done.”