The Local: Flower District Clings to Manhattan Roots

Signs of change in Chelsea’s flower district are as abundant as the plants blooming on 28th Street. An apartment building

Signs of change in Chelsea’s flower district are as abundant as the plants blooming on 28th Street. An apartment building will soon rise from the vacant lot at the corner of Sixth Avenue, the eastern boundary of the district that once stretched from 26th through 28th streets, between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Moving closer to Seventh, a blue construction barrier demarcates another building site; across the street a Holiday Garden Inn and a residential building flank three, squat silk flower shops.

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But for a century-old single-trade district that has supposedly been withering away for nearly two decades, the area appeared remarkably vibrant this Wednesday.

Wholesalers were busy filling their final orders of the day at lunchtime—traditionally the closing bell rings in the early afternoon there since distributors open at dawn to cater to the city’s retail florists. None of the three remaining distributors on Sixth Avenue had time to chat. Stems and branches were strewn across the floors, and workers hurriedly loaded bundles into waiting trucks.

Their urgency was most likely motivated as much by the threat of a parking ticket as by high customer service standards. Predatory traffic cops are one of the many challenges flower markets have confronted recently.

Rising rents, encroaching development and the vicissitudes of the flower market have driven countless distributors out of Chelsea, and pushed the Flower Market Association to search for a new trade hub.

Since Chelsea was rezoned to accommodate more residential development in 1995, the industry has flirted with sites in three of the five boroughs, from the meatpacking district and the Harlem waterfront, to Hunts Point in the Bronx and, most recently, Long Island City in Queens. In 2005, the association contracted a broker to scout potential sites, but told The New York Times then that they had settled on four locations in Manhattan.

A year or so later, the Association changed course, picking a property in Long Island City. Like earlier aborted proposals, the association scrapped the LIC plan last July and has since abandoned the hunt.

Though the need to relocate the dwindling group of vendors remains as pressing today as a year ago, according to Gary Page, president of the Flower Market Association, many of the distributors simply won’t uproot their businesses from the current flower district.

“It was a very tumultuous process,” he said of rallying support for the move to LIC. “We thought we had enough backing, but there is such dissension among the wholesalers about what their customers want, and a lack of foresight. It’s difficult for these family-run businesses to change their techniques of doing business after so many years of doing things a certain way.”

At one time there were more than 100 flower distributors in the Chelsea district, said Mr. Page, but since the industry peaked in the 1960s, the number has dwindled to about 24 wholesalers and a few peripheral retailers.

“Some believe that their customer base wants them to stay in Manhattan, but it’s very difficult to purchase in this location,” he said. “I think wherever you put the flowers, people will come … if there is a viable market located in or around Manhattan.”

Wholesalers seem to be ambivalent about a potential move; most reluctantly admit they will eventually be forced out, but few are willing to relocate voluntarily, though the flower business and the district continue to move further away from what either once was.

Fischer and Page, a flower district mainstay with clients including La Grenouille, the Plaza and Martha Stewart, was forced to relocate from 134 to 150 West 28th Street last August to make way for a hotel. The new space is the same price, but smaller, said the company’s controller, Steven Kleine.

“They’ve been trying to move us for 20 years,” he said, laughing.

If florists keep getting “squeezed out” by developers—Mr. Kleine listed three new hotel projects in the pipeline on a single 28th Street block—they will be compelled to find a new location. On the other hand they risk losing their customers with a move to the outer boroughs. “Once you have to go over a bridge and traffic it becomes really inconvenient,” he said of the drawbacks of a base in LIC. “It’s the same old story: one or two florists who are old-line and have money, the rest just can’t afford to move.”

The owner of the 12-year-old Paradise Plants, Sees Kumar, blames the “big buildings” for displacing so many markets.

“I never see new people come in,” he said. “Rent is so high; if you lose your lease, that’s it, you have to pay double."

Traffic violations are also “killing the business.”

“If you park your truck outside for five minutes," Mr. Kumar said, "you get a violation and customers are afraid to come because they’ll get a ticket.”

Troy Baksh, who has worked in the flower district for the past eight years, said his employers still have five years left on their lease and a solid base of customers like Bloom and Broadway Florists. Nonetheless, “it’s not like the old days.”

“Clients used to come in and say, ‘Give me a box of those, and two of those,’” he said pointing to different types of flowers. “At 10 or 11 we closed our doors and that was it. Now we’re begging people to come in, and not many customers place big orders like they used to. They’re looking for smaller amounts of specialty flowers for a few arrangements.”

Meanwhile, a lot of florists have started ordering stock directly from the farms, Mr. Baksh said, prompting some Chelsea distributors to sell retail and wholesale. “Just like florists are cutting out the middle man, a lot of restaurants and people buying for their homes are coming straight to us instead of the neighborhood florist.”

Mr. Kleine, the Fischer and Page controller, agreed the “major thing is direct buying,” whether by high-volume, longtime customers or small-time Korean grocers.

The vendors that remain in the flower district either have good leases or own their buildings, said the owner of the 30-year-old Noble Planta store Chad Markovic. The store occupies a building that is zoned for retail use on the first floor so developers can only buy air rights, he said.

“They can’t get me out,” he said, “others have been less lucky.”

Noble Planta has rented plants to TV and commercial set designers of First Wives Club, The Sopranos and a Coca-Cola commercial. The main draw of the flower (and plant) district for active businesses, Mr. Marcovic said, is convenience. Recently a client needed a cactus for an episode of Saturday Night Live, for example, and sent a driver down to Chelsea immediately.

“People always need things quickly. If we were in the Bronx, people would not be able to get here because of the traffic,” Mr. Markovic said as he watered the rows of plants on the sidewalk outside the store.

Another reason Mr. Markovic refused to relocate Noble Planta is because he risks losing his stock. While flower distributors throw out unsold stock when it starts to wilt, plant wholesalers need to nurture their inventory until it is sold.

“This proposal is for the florists,” he said. “Plants are fragile. You need to water them, nurse them, touch them, explain to customers how to take care of them. You can’t just pick up and move them. If one plant dies, I need to sell three to cover the loss.

“This plant was inside for two months and lost its vitality,” Mr. Markovic said
, pointing to the discolored parts of a small cactus. “It tool me three months to find the right place to put it, and now it’s thriving again, but I still have to find someone who really likes plants to sell to.”

Mr. Markovic said he is the only wholesaler in the flower district who appreciates the installation of traffic meters, which he claimed have not only reduced traffic but made the air more pleasant to breathe.

The new buildings, on the other hand, are as unwelcome to him as they are to his competitors.

“Look at that grey callous,” he said, pointing to one of the new towers across the street from Noble Planta. “I understand its functionality, but it’s uglier than Auschwitz. We need something pretty in a place like this. We shouldn’t move to another borough.”

The Local: Flower District Clings to Manhattan Roots