For as far as the eye can see down Austin Street in Forest Hills on a warm Saturday afternoon, people stroll down the sidewalk, customers patronize the various shops and boutiques and friends meet for drinks at area bars and restaurants.
The neighborhood is a garden in the midst of a big city, according to Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce President Leslie Brown, and despite some of the recent closures of long-standing businesses in the area, she says business has been as solid as ever this summer.
“Forest Hills is a very vibrant, booming area. Business is doing very well here,” Brown said. “The few vacant stores that were empty in the winter and spring have now been rented.”
While business naturally slows as the temperature drops, the opening of a 17-story, 97-unit residential tower at 108-11 Queens Blvd. expected in October and the recent addition of an elevator inside the Forest Hills-71st Avenue subway station will give the area an added boost in both the short and long term.
“When people invest millions into high rise condos, that’s going to help keep the neighborhood affluent,” Brown said. “People making investments here shows you something. Forest Hills is still on the rise.”
Even without the expected influx of people into the community come the fall, Forest Hills preservationist Michael Perlman said he is constantly encouraged by the sight of people flocking to commercial strips such as Austin Street on a Saturday night.
However, he hopes the newest Forest Hills residents, as well as the ones who have lived in the area for years, will support the many small businesses lining Austin Street and the surrounding corridors as opposed to larger, brand-name stores.
“It remains to be seen if the additional residents resulting from the new condo will add to the foot traffic on Austin Street,” Perlman said. “My gut instinct tells me that it will, but I hope it will attract the type of clientele who believes in supporting the local assets, rather than only shopping in Manhattan’s high-end independent shops or chains.”
Another worry of Perlman’s is Austin Street becoming “medical center row.”
In 2013, plans for a ProHealth Urgent Care center at 71-53 Austin St. were announced.
In April, the United Artists Brandon movie theater at 70-20 Austin St. closed after 51 years in business, with a PM Pediatrics set to open at the site in the fall.
Plans for the ProHealth center have stalled after a stop-work order was issued in March, but that doesn’t change Perlman’s feelings.
“It is a shame how the character of Austin Street,” he said, “is being homogenized due to some landlords and developers who constantly seek profits for their own pockets, ignoring Forest Hills’ architectural distinction and places for recreation, entertainment and cultural interest.”
Brown said the ProHealth plan will continue to be problematic for the area for the near future, as the “eyesore” attracts garbage and negative attention. She proclaimed her love for small businesses, but noted how health clinics are here to stay.
“They see our neighborhood has a lot to offer,” she said. “Those urgent care centers are the wave of the future.”
While the future of Forest Hills commerce seems bright, Austin Street does not have a Business Improvement District, which would make the corridor eligible for various enhanced city services for an annual fee.
Perlman believes such a designation will help many of the street’s small businesses remain successful and give consumers an even wider selection of stores to search for bargains.
“Our community needs to bond together,” he said, “and work with the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, Rego-Forest Preservation Council and Dadras Architects of the Downtown Revitalization Program and form an Austin Street BID.”