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Century 21 Closure Leaves Big Void on 86 St. in Bay Ridge

An empty storefront in the middle of Bay Ridge’s 86th Street is all that’s left of the once-thriving Century 21 Department Store. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

BAY RIDGE — The devastating effect COVID-19 has had on New York City’s businesses can be seen in plain sight in Bay Ridge. The space that the Century 21 Department Store occupied at 472 86th St. for nearly 60 years now stands empty.

The 19,800-square-foot store took up several storefronts between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Its closure on Dec. 6 is deeply worrisome, according to Bay Ridge business and civic leaders.

“It leaves a big void. When you walk up 86th Street now, you feel the loss,” said Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 10.

Beckmann, who described Century 21 as the “go-to place for shopping,” said there is a concern in the community over the possible ramifications the closure will have on the neighborhood’s overall economy. “It was an anchor store on 86th Street,” she said.

Century 21 attracted thousands of shoppers to Bay Ridge each day, according to the 86th Street Bay Ridge Business Improvement District (BID). Other stores benefitted from a spillover effect as customers would come out of Century 21 and patronize those shops.

The 86th Street Century 21 was part of a 13-store chain founded by the Gindi family in 1961. In September of last year, the owners announced they would file for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 and close all of their stores.

In September of last year, the owners announced they would file for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, close all of their stores and lay off 855 employees.

In public statements, the owners decried the failure of their insurance company to pay $175 million under the terms of a business interruption policy – money that could have helped keep the business afloat, they contended.

“We now have no viable alternative but to begin the closure of our beloved family business because our insurers, to whom we have paid significant premiums every year for protection against unforeseen circumstances like we are experiencing today, have turned their backs on us at this most critical time,” Century 21 co-CEO Raymond Gindi in a statement.

Under New York State’s PAUSE order, non-essential businesses were forced to temporarily close. They were eventually allowed to reopen, but by then the pandemic’s lingering effects had left a mark.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, whose district includes 86th Street, charged that restrictions on businesses played a role in Century 21’s fate. 

“Century 21 is just one of the businesses to fall victim to the arbitrary COVID-19 guidelines that have caused unimaginable suffering for so many families and small businesses in our city,” she said.

A study conducted by the Partnership for New York City estimated at least one-third of the city’s 240,000 businesses that had to close will not be able to reopen. More than 500,000 jobs have been lost, the study found.

“With each passing day, we risk losing more businesses,” Malliotakis said, “which is why I’ve been pushing Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to lift their job-killing restrictions and work towards a balanced approach that allows residents to remain safe and our local businesses to thrive.”

The 86th Street Bay Ridge BID, which covers 86th Street between Fourth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, is lined with more than 100 stores. There is concern mounting over the fate of 86th Street and whether stores can weather the pandemic. In another big blow, the owners of TJ Maxx announced that their store at 502 86th St. will close this month.

BID leaders are working to attract a new tenant for the Century 21 property.

“There is huge action taking place. We’re optimistic,” said BID Executive Director Patrick Condren. “Nationals are looking at it,” he said, referring to national retail chains.

City Councilman Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge, is also optimistic.

“It is hard to imagine 86th Street in Bay Ridge without Century 21, but we will bounce back,”  he said. “Along with the 86th Street BID, I have been meeting with people and companies looking to open up on 86th Street, ranging from independent businesses to national retailers.”

Brannan is organizing a task force to focus on rebuilding 86th Street. “Our neighborhood is great because of our small mom and pop shops but 86th Street plays a vital role in our local economy,” he said.

Part of the reason for optimism within the community is due to the old real estate saying, “location, location, location.” The BID area is easily accessible by public transportation, thanks to the 86th Street subway station on Fourth Avenue, and the street is served by several bus lines.

“The board is confident new tenants will take that space. The location makes it a viable commercial corridor,” Beckmann said.

However, even before COVID-19, there were troubling signs, according to longtime Bay Ridge residents, who pointed out that the neighborhood has lost several mom-and-pop stores in recent years.

“The pandemic was a factor in what happened to Century 21,” said a Bay Ridge lawyer. “But the reality is: Amazon is cutting into business, especially department stores. And Amazon is not going away.”

The neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst are home to a combined 450,000 residents, Condren said. 

“Another 75,000 people come into work there. All those people shop,” he said. “Pandemics don’t last forever.”

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