In every major metro area, you'll find a dearth of retail venues in blighted inner city neighborhoods. Yet residents — though they might not have the buying power of a Fifth Avenue dowager — spend like everyone else. They buy food, toiletries, clothing and entertainment. But they do it outside their own neighborhoods.

Such is the case in East New York, Brooklyn. But things are about to change. HELP USA is bucking tradition by building a mixed-use center, Genesis Neighborhood Plaza, that will include retail space. HELP USA is a non-profit group that has a center and works in the neighborhood (it also owns and operates several housing structures its president describes as “fortresses”) with impoverished people, helping them become independent by providing assistance with housing, education, services and job training.

HELPing gentrification

Designed by Amie Gross of Amie Gross Architects, New York, the Genesis Neighborhood Plaza is a multi-phase project. Phase I opened earlier this year and includes 55 units of housing, a health clinic, and a computer center. The next phase, expected to break ground later this year, will include additional housing, a daycare center, and 8,000 sq. ft. of retail. The retail is expected to play a key role in the ongoing gentrification of the neighborhood — once a grim, crime-ridden area that had the dubious distinction of the city's highest murder rate.

Despite a burgeoning population in recent years (at least more than 300 housing units provided by HELP and another 300 by another developer), East New York saw not one new store built within a five-mile radius, according to HELP president Richard Motta. Current shopping options are limited to bodegas. For grocery shopping, residents cab it to other neighborhoods.

“Housing alone doesn't create a neighborhood,” Gross says. “It doesn't bring satisfaction of life because it doesn't create places for people to gather, shop and feel an identity with their neighborhood.”

“Rather than building another fortress, we wanted Genesis to turn the street into an esplanade — a place where people can walk on a tree-lined street with old-fashioned street lamps — and create a focal point for the neighborhood,” comments Motta.

And instead of following institutional design models, Gross designed buildings that were warmer and had more of a residential feel to them by specifying glazed brick in russet, olive green and caramel hues. “We didn't want primary colors that give an institutional feeling,” she comments.

Facing front

Rather than turning its back, the building opens to the street — with a daycare center, for instance, that will be visible from the street — both for aesthetics and security. “The best security is having people around, not closing things off,” Gross says. “So the entry building, for example, is like a glass cathedral. You can see in, out, and through it.”

The New York office of Economic Research Associates is doing pro bono demographic and retail analysis to determine the retailers HELP should court. Possibilities include a shoe store, a dry cleaners, a video rental store and a hair salon. A corner space has been reserved for a restaurant, and one space has been set aside for some entrepreneurial venture run by locals. Gross senses a change in retailers' view of low-income neighborhoods. “They've discovered that money can be made. Harlem is a perfect example. Those stores are doing extraordinary business.”

“It's a no-brainer,” adds Motta. “There's such a need for retail that I don't worry about it being successful.”

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based writer.

Opportunity beckons

Retailers are often skittish about making forays into inner city neighborhoods. Get over it, say those who know the inner workings of low-income areas.

Here are five reasons why such neighborhoods are rich for development.

  1. Inner city residents say they'd frequent stores if they were available.
  2. Low-income citizens do have discretionary income. Motta says some homeless clients arrive at HELP with TVs and VCRs in tow.
  3. Retailers have a captive audience that has nowhere to shop. “Even though incomes are lower than in other areas, population concentrations are much higher,” Motta observes. “Retailers will probably find that one offsets the other.”
  4. The labor pool is built in. HELP, for instance, conducts intensive job training that teaches people everything from interviewing to accepting direction from managers.
  5. There are financial incentives. For example, says Motta, “We have a Federal wage subsidy program, and we'll pay a portion of the employee's wages if a retailer hires one of our clients.”
    — Elyse Umlauf-Garneau