Half-Empty or Half-Full?

Trellis / Nisi Stuck: Is This the Enduring Symbol of Main Street?

Updated 3 years ago Peter McCarthy
Nisi (Trellis) Unchanged in Three Months
Nisi (Trellis) Unchanged in Three Months
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Alex Razaghi let me take a picture of the new sign: NISI. Accented in blue. But we weren't allowed inside yet. With opening day seemingly in sight, that would come soon enough. Or so we thought.

Whatever Became of NISI?

The upscale Greek restaurant, Alex Razaghi said, "is close to done but we have to wait for all the permits." His father, Kaie, popular manager of the now closed Trellis, smiled in the sun near the curb. That was August 17th.

Two days later and after I wrote an article, circulating the good news, I noticed flowers placed on a table near the window. Almost there, I thought. Flowers are for customers. A writer by habit as well as profession, I began writing the story in my head.

The flowers, three months later, we now know are artificial, blossoming without customers at the top of a row of empty tables.

Passing by, you notice that nothing else has changed inside. Corrugated containers collect more dust near what looks like the future kitchen. The rooms are unlit after sunset.

On the sidewalk, Island House's oppressive scaffolding makes walking along Main Street feel like finding your way through a tunnel where sunlight never intrudes.

And, nearby, Scot Bobo has given up on his bright idea, Main Street Sweets, into which he plunged enthusiastic ideas, community feeling and money.

Are rents too high? Probably for a shop as narrowly focused and seasonally dependent as Main Street Sweets.

Is the deal RIOC cut with Hudson a failure? Soon to be empty chairs in Main Street Sweets and the failure of NISI to open, after more than two years, tell one side of a story residents may not want to hear.

There's another version you can't ignore.

Take into account Urgent Care's innovative medical service which just this month opened its newest location on Main Street. Concede that a national food chain, Subway, has done steady business since opening. Neither is locally owned or has roots in the community.

If David Nasser's new wine bar welcomes us, as planned, next summer, it will join Wholesome Factory and Island Wines & Spirits as his third investment on Roosevelt Island. Every business along Southtown's common area does well.

Understanding Change

Months after Starbucks opened near the subway, the corporation announced a cutback in locations. On a Red Bus rolling past, a longtime Roosevelt Islander sneered, "They're gonna shut down, and good riddance."

Intruders no more, Starbucks reinvented itself. We still buy lattes, mochas and just plain joe, and most days, it's not easy to find an empty seat, if you want to stay and join the students at work with their laptops.

What we're learning is that surviving on Main Street is not as dependent on residents' loyalty anymore as it is on the financial flexibility to handle change and deep enough pockets to get through bad weather and tough luck.

Facts are hard to come by, but a good guess is that Trellis has not returned a single customer to its successor, Nisi, because cash isn't there to bounce back from an early failure in construction planning. Or that Main Street Sweets was too optimistic about how long it would take to revitalize its neighborhood and increase foot traffic - or whether those things would ever happen at all.

Don't blame Hudson. Scot Bobo doesn't. And don't blame RIOC for the inexcusable failure to bolster the Main Street corridor with signage. Signs are never likely to encourage more than a modest increase.

As for Hudson, while everyone, including them, is frustrated with the perceived slowness of filling in empty Main Street storefronts, the developer brought in new businesses that have succeeded.

Wholesome Factory's doors open to a steady stream of shoppers. Subway seems to have the right formula for local tastes.

Gallery RIVAA continues to mount new shows, and Bread & Butter Market's redesign makes the third generation family business competitive and a community anchor in its own right.

Long after we hoped it would resolve, there's still a sense of feeling our way along to the right balance on Main Street. Part of that are inevitable wins and losses.

Whether we like it or not, our demographics are undergoing seismic shifts. It feels as if our business community is struggling to follow, and we're not quite finished yet.

It may be too early, not too late, to expect a firm and established Main Street that fits the community as we imagine the old shops once did. That fit proved unsustainable, a happy illusion propped up by an indulgent landlord that finally had to face the retail facts that welfare is not the right formula for commercial success.

Newcomers like Urgent Care and mainstays like Bread & Butter Market may be showing us the way. Each is fresh and different and attacks old problems in new ways, each with a broad reach and focus and what customers need as well as what they want. 

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