Struggle to Survive: Manhattan’s Seaport Still Fights to Rebuild

By Features FOXBusiness

A Tale of Two Worlds at Manhattan's Seaport

At Manhattan's South Street Seaport, eight months after Superstorm Sandy, businesses still fight to rebuild, waiting for business to return.

More than eight months after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Eastern Seaboard, recovery efforts are already underway -- or completed -- in many towns and cities.

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But for Lower Manhattan’s historic South Street Seaport, a long road still lies ahead.

Sandy, the 820-mile diameter storm that slammed the nation’s eastern coastline on October 29, 2012, was responsible for $25 billion in loss of business activity, according to IHS Global Insight.

For the Seaport, located in the mandatory evacuation area: Flood Zone A, that meant a complete closure of all businesses as residents fled Lower Manhattan.

A Tale of Two Worlds

As the one year anniversary of the storm approaches, the neighborhood, once bustling with activity, is still a relative ghost town with no more than a handful of shops and restaurants open for business.

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Take a walk down South Street, with views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge dotting the landscape to your right and you’d have no idea the area was in full-on recovery mode.
But glance to your left and you’ll find shop windows boarded up, torn-up cobblestone streets, and only a person or two passing on the sidewalk.

Out of the rubble rises Pasanella & Son Vintners, a wine shop owned and operated by Marco Pasanella. He turned disaster into opportunity and is one of the few shops back open for business on the block.

When Sandy hit, his shop was submerged under more than six feet of water.

Slideshow: Sandy's damage to Pasanella's wine shop 

“The shop was a total mess after Sandy,” he said. “We had six and a half feet of water, that’s above my head. So everything below was ruined. We had to take everything out and rebuild.”

It only took three weeks.

“There was a good five minutes of ‘Oh no! I can’t believe this,’ and then we got to work,” he said. “We had to take everything out of here immediately. Anything that was sheetrock, anything that would hold moisture, we took out immediately.”

But not everyone in the neighborhood has the same story to tell.

Just two blocks away on Water Street sits New York City’s oldest running bar, Bridge Café. The structure is more than 200 years old, dating back to 1794. It’s gone through multiple iterations in its years of existence, most recently owned and operated by Adam Weprin, whose family has owned it for more than six decades.

“It’s my home,” Weprin said. “My father started the place in 1979…it’s just like a member of the family at this point. I like to call it a younger sister. And I just have to get her back up on her feet.”

A seemingly simple desire, but one that’s been difficult for Weprin and his team to accomplish.

“All electricity was shot, all refrigeration was gone, we’ve pulled them out, all food, gone. Basically, the engineer came in and looked at the basement and said 85% of the wood in the basement – which is including support beams – needs to be replaced. That’s now 100%,” he said.

In the months since Sandy struck, Weprin has been in what amounts to a holding pattern. For him, it wasn’t as easy as getting building permits to begin reconstruction on the restaurant.

“You know, they don’t tell you how difficult just the paperwork end of it is. After finding out that we had no money coming, Flood Zone A, we don’t have the insurance, we found the money to do the job, but then actually doing the job and crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. The paperwork is unbelievable. And if you’re not a builder, it’s a huge undertaking,” Weprin said.

As time passes, the dollars add up. At this point, the damage to the Bridge Café totals near $300,000.

The City of New York offered matching grants up to $25,000. But Weprin said for him, the grants just didn’t make sense.

“This is a lot more than $25,000 (in damage), plus there was so much paperwork involved, and I don’t want another loan, I’m a restaurant … everything in a restaurant business is pennies. Saving whatever pennies you can save. So, it just didn’t make any sense,” he said.

With no grants or money from insurance, Weprin said finding the cash to pull the restaurant back into business is proving difficult and costly, making it difficult to forecast when he’ll be able to reopen. But at this point, he said he’s aiming for late summer.

Starting from Scratch…Sort of

Situated between Pasanella & Son Vinters and the Bridge Café is Front Street, a segment of the South Street Seaport that’s been in a seemingly never-ending period of recovery since Sandy, a once-in-a-lifetime storm.

The block of Front Street nestled between Peck Slip and Beekman Street is primarily owned by The Durst Organization, a real-estate company which also manages properties like One World Trade Center and Four Times Square, and is working to restore and rebuild the historic location to its former glory, and is now in the final stages of re-development.

“It was a mess down here,” Jordan Barowitz, director of external affairs for Durst, said. “There were cars floating down the streets. Refrigerator units inside the retail spaces had floated out onto the street. It was really bad.”

But the company has worked with the restaurant and retail owners, as well as its residential tenants to not just re-build, but revitalize their properties since the day after Sandy.

“For the last seven or eight months, we have completely re-engineered, rebuilt all the mechanical systems in these buildings. During the storm, we took up to 7 feet of water in the ground floor of these buildings and it destroyed the heating, cooling, electrical elevators, fire alarms, security systems in the building,” Barowitz said.

But those new systems and upgrades didn’t come cheap. For Durst, which had flood and business interruption insurance, the out-of-pocket expenses totaled nearly $7 million.

All of the retailers on Durst’s section of Front Street have committed to returning, along with nearly 45% of their residential tenants.

Jack Mazzola, who owns Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee which sits in the middle of Durst’s Front Street section, says he’s  going to reopen – it’s just a matter of getting back into his space to do it.

After Sandy hit, his store, elevated from street level, was under four feet of water. But two of the most important pieces of his operation, his coffee and espresso machines, were safe.

“The next day, I was down in the space,” he said. “You feel like this violation. When I was 17, I moved to the city and my apartment got robbed. I saw the door broken, my apartment ransacked. It was the same feeling here. A complete violation and wonder of why. But there’s no one to blame it on but an act of God.”

Unfortunately for Mazzola and other retailers on Front Street, while Durst worked to revitalize their properties, the business owners had to wait.

“The delay was that we had to basically re-design and re-engineer all of the mechanical systems in the building right after Hurricane Sandy,” Barowitz said. “There was a demand not just on materials like boilers and new electrical panels and pumps, but a tremendous demand on talent as well, on contractors, on designers, on architects, on engineers.”

He said just two or three days following the storm, the company hired an engineering firm to re-engineer the buildings, but that involved taking apart all the heating and cooling systems from the basements all the way to the roof.

One of the biggest problems Durst ran into was a geothermal heating system installed under Front Street, shared by all of the businesses and residential tenants on the block. When Sandy hit, the system was flooded and destroyed.

“The geothermal system is no longer. Geothermal systems are very susceptible to flooding. And they have to be in the basement because they have to be close to where their source water is. So we replaced the geothermal system with another variable refrigerant system that lives up on the roof,” Barowitz said.

The Finishing Touches

Now, nearly one year after the storm, businesses and residents are beginning to move back home. Residential tenants who rent from Durst are scheduled to start moving back into their apartments at the end of June, with retail tenants not far behind.

Despite the long wait, Mazzola isn’t worried about business returning to his shop – or the Seaport.

“We’ve put our block in the road down there years ago. People know we’re down there. We get fans going from other locations, every day someone is asking when the store is opening,” he said.

For the Bridge Café’s Weprin, despite the long road to recovery ahead for his restaurant, he sees the end in sight.

“Standing here, you just have to say ,’Alright, we just have to rebuild. Just have to go forward.’ That’s all we really can do. Where am I going to go? And this is all I know how to do at this point,” he said.

Despite the struggles and the drawn-out timeline, the revitalization of the Seaport is coming, proving even a one-hundred year storm couldn’t dampen New York’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Pasanella said he can already feel a change.

“I think the mood is changing,” he said. “I think for awhile it was like, ‘Ugh, we’re so bummed out.’ And then it was, ‘I’m so tired of talking about Sandy.’ And now there’s  a lot of stuff happening and within the next few months, you’re really going to see a radical change in the neighborhood.”