Construction Turns Orchard Block Into 'Ghost Town'

What used to be a Lower East Side destination has become a no-man’s land of rats, dirty streets and prolonged high-rise construction projects.

“People look down here and see a ghost town,” said a man who works on the block of Orchard Street just south of Houston. “And they just keep walking.”

The block had been a quintessential part of the reincarnated neighborhood. Its designer fashion boutiques, old-world fabric store, discount retailers, bars and restaurants reflected the gentrifying of the neighborhood at a tolerable pace. On Sundays, the street closed to cars to create a pedestrian mall, with many of the stores setting up displays in the middle of the street. In the summer, the block hosted the occasional food festival or local band.

But much of the sound on the block the past three years has been the noise from the construction of Jason Pomeranc’s 19-story boutique hotel at 200 Allen Street (the back of which sits on the west side of Orchard); and of developer Morris Platt’s 26-story condominium almost directly across from the hotel on the west side at 180 Orchard Street. More than three years ago, both developers bought up several one-story commercial buildings and razed those to make way for their projects.

What used to be a Lower East Side destination has become a no-man’s land of rats, dirty streets and prolonged high-rise construction projects.

“People look down here and see a ghost town,” said a man who works on the block of Orchard Street just south of Houston. “And they just keep walking.”

The block had been a quintessential part of the reincarnated neighborhood. Its designer fashion boutiques, old-world fabric store, discount retailers, bars and restaurants reflected the gentrifying of the neighborhood at a tolerable pace. On Sundays, the street closed to cars to create a pedestrian mall, with many of the stores setting up displays in the middle of the street. In the summer, the block hosted the occasional food festival or local band.

But much of the sound on the block the past three years has been the noise from the construction of Jason Pomeranc’s 19-story boutique hotel at 200 Allen Street (the back of which sits on the west side of Orchard); and of developer Morris Platt’s 26-story condominium almost directly across from the hotel on the west side at 180 Orchard Street. More than three years ago, both developers bought up several one-story commercial buildings and razed those to make way for their projects.

The hotel began major construction in April of 2005 and should be finished this summer – just past its three-year anniversary. The Platt site had little activity for more than two years until last fall when crews finished digging the project’s gigantic hole. A site worker recently said the foundation would be finished in the next few weeks and that it would take “years” to complete the project. A representative from Platt’s company, Palisades Construction, said they didn’t have a completion date.

“Everybody complains about it,” said Marie, who has bartended at The Skinny on the block for the past three years. “They are going to put a lot of rich people in here from the Midwest and we have to sit through five years of construction.”

Meanwhile the hotel’s scaffolding remains and both sites have taken the sidewalks, leaving tiny walkways.

The construction has also brought rats. Marie said that a friend stepped on one and got bit in the leg. “There’s a lot of dust and a lot of rats,” she said. “Entire schools of rats come out at night.”

During weekdays, Orchard has often been closed to make way for heavy construction equipment – further hindering the businesses on the block.

“It’s affected all of us,” said Doron Braunshtein, who has run the boutique Apollo Braun on the block since 2002. “A lot of wonderful stores have closed. They couldn’t stand the noise and the construction.”

A furniture store spent only a couple of months before it left. The hair salon Kropps and Bobbers moved two blocks away to Ludlow Street. The bar Core One Nine One closed in October after replacing the vegetarian restaurant Heirloom in 2006. The Irish pub The Sixth Ward currently has the 1,500-square-foot space. Zozo’s Juice and Grille on the corner of Orchard and Stanton closed in October after a run of more than two years.

The restaurant Big John’s lasted a year before bailing. That space got sucked up in December by American Apparel, which landed on the corner of Orchard and Houston in the summer of 2004 – about the same time the first stores were being booted to make way for the high-rises.

“People come and go, come and go,” Mr. Braunshtein said.

There have been survivors through the construction, including the clothing boutique Johnson; Zucco: Le French Diner; VIP Leather; the fabric store Elegant Woolen and Silk, Inc.; and 1960’s remnant Rosario’s Pizza.

Their examples and the potential on the block led Melissa Fox to sign a lease next to Rosario’s in October. She plans to open a Latin-themed restaurant and event space in the coming weeks.

“I think the hotel will bring visibility back to the area,” she said. “This block has the potential of going back to the good old days.”

She had heard that the all the construction on the block would be finished in eight months. But it might take years. “I hope not,” Ms. Fox said.

Construction Turns Orchard Block Into 'Ghost Town'