Pier 17 Mall Is Reopened, but Customers Are Few, Merchants Complain

The mall reopened on Dec. 6, but many businesses in the area remain shuttered. Jessica Terrell/Tribeca Trib

The lights are on, holiday wreaths hang above the doorways, and Christmas music echoes through the halls of Pier 17. But merchants in the South Street Seaport shopping mall say they aren’t feeling a lot of holiday cheer this year.

“This is the worst Christmas in 20 years,” said Adriaan Van Der Plas who, after two decades in the Seaport mall, expects to move his gallery to the Lower East Side after December. “I am glad I am back [open] but Christmas shopping is not here.”

Foot traffic at the mall, which was closed for more than a month after Sandy, is at a fraction of what it was before the storm, merchants say.

The mall—which was already slated to close next spring to make way for a new glass-walled mall—was closed for a month after Sandy while its owner, Howard Hughes Corp., conducted damage inspections. It reopened on Dec. 6 after engineers determined the structure to be sound, but so far the mall has failed to attract the usual holiday crowds, merchants complain.

On a recent weekday morning, a few tourists poked their heads into shops, but the halls were mostly deserted.  “There are no customers,” said Milad Dos, who owns the mall gift shop Orange Gallery. “Nobody likes to come around and go shopping in this area [now.]”

Some merchants, like Dos, say the Seaport is now too gloomy to attract the number of tourists that poured onto the pier before the storm. Others say their landlord has not done enough to publicize the mall’s reopening.

“No one has alerted the media. Everyone thinks we are still closed. Whenever customers come in the shop, they say, 'Oh, didn't you guys get flooded?'” said Michael Nicolini, who owns two gift shops called Stone Flower inside the mall. “I’m not even making rent, let alone payroll.”

Howard Hughes has placed several signs proclaiming “Pier 17 is Open!” along Fulton Street and the entrance to Pier 17. And in an email to the Trib, a Hughes spokesman said the company has made marketing efforts similar to those implemented in previous holiday seasons.

“We have taken numerous steps to publicize the opening from social channels, working to spread the word through tourism and community organizations,” the spokesman said.

But those efforts have fallen flat with the tenants, who say that little has been done to light the outside of the mall, making the otherwise darkened area more inviting.

“Once it gets dark out, around 4 or 5, there are no lights. It’s kind of eerie,” said Simply Seafood owner Joseph Demane. “It is crazy to be open like this, unless they are going to market the place and bring people down.”

Poor publicity for the reopening is just the latest complaint merchants have leveled against Hughes Corp. since the storm. Many expressed frustration in November about a lack of information about when the mall would reopen. Numerous tenants say they received notice of the reopening just hours before the doors were unlocked.

“I was surprised to get notice they wanted us to open the same day,” said Nicolini. “I didn't open on Thursday, I opened on Friday. I should have just stayed closed, I made like $27.”

Harbor Lights restaurant, whose owner said at the end of November that she had been forced to cancel nearly $500,000 in Christmas business while waiting for word on when the space could reopen, was still closed as of Wednesday, Dec. 19. The owner did not respond to a request for comment.

Hughes Corp. called complaints about poor communication regarding the opening date “unwarranted.”

“HHC timely notified all of the Pier 17 tenants, by email, of developments throughout the process, including post-event inspection results shared with tenants within hours of receipt November 30th, and expressed that the pier building would be able to reopen in short order,” a spokesman said.

Several tenants also complained this week about a lack of communication from Hughes Corp. regarding December rent. They said they were told they are obligated to pay full rent for the month—despite the week that the pier was closed. Others say they have been told there is no decision yet on whether they will be given a break.

In an email to the Trib, a Howard Hughes spokesman said the company does not discuss rent as a “matter of policy.”

In the meantime, several store owners in the mall said they have had to lay off staff, and have cut back store hours. Others have sale signs plastered in the windows of their shops, hoping to entice more buyers.

For at least one customer on a recent morning, who had ventured past the boarded up stores on Fulton Street and down the pier entrance flanked by construction and fenced-off restaurants, the calm inside was something of a relief.

“It’s a bit quiet,” said Diane Alberti, from New Jersey, who had checked online to see if the mall had reopened before heading into the city. “But that’s nice because everything else is so crowded.”