Coney Island’s Applebee’s Bar and Grill closed its doors on Monday, transforming the once bustling Surf Avenue chain restaurant into one of the many storefronts that sit vacant throughout the People’s Playground.
“It’s definitely unfortunate to say the least,” said Alexandra Silversmith, the executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island, a nonprofit business booster. “From what I can tell, they were very busy.”
The Applebee’s franchise opened its doors in 2013, and quickly became a mainstay among locals, many of whom were shocked when the restaurant suddenly shuttered on Sept. 9.
But the chain eatery isn’t the only Coney business to fold in recent memory, as the People’s Playground has seen a wave of businesses shut down or move away, leaving a trail of empty storefronts in their wake. A report released by the Department of City Planning in August revealed that the People’s Playground has double the average vacancy rate among neighborhoods in New York City, and according to local business owners, the neighborhood’s seasonal economy and high rents are to blame.
“In the off-season, everything dies down here,” said Michael Georgoulalcos, the manager of Paul’s Daughter, a concessions stand on the Riegelmann Boardwalk. “The boardwalk is the place to be for business here. If you’re on Surf Avenue, it’s a lot harder. All the tourists come here to the boardwalk.”
Mermaid Avenue — a popular strip among residents — has seen the largest drop in commerce, with 54 percent of stores closing between 2011 and 2016, according to the City Planning study. The thoroughfare, which sits two blocks away from the amusement district, may suffer because of its relative distance from the neighborhood’s tourist center. But according to locals, an increase in neighborhood stores, rather than in tourist destinations, could be the key to economic renewal.
“There’s a misperception of what people desire,” Silversmith said, citing the area’s large population and the many transit workers who stop for lunch. “People see it as a tourist district and don’t think about the everyday person.”
Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island) agreed, arguing that the area needed more clothing stores, healthy food options, and full-service banks, but added that a 2009 rezoning of the neighborhood — which required developers to subsidize affordable housing, new infrastructure, and transit investments — did not yield the promised benefits.
“It should not be lost on anyone that this is occurring about ten years after the 2009 rezoning,” he said. “There was not a structure to put in place to monitor the points of that agreement.”
To jump start the local economy, Treyger’s office and the Alliance for Coney Island are working to promote year-long programming, decorate the street with historic light fixtures and benches, and assemble an organization to fight for local businesses.
“Coney Island is in the process of forming a BID,” Treyger said, claiming that the neighborhood’s business owners banned together after seeing the DCP’s study.
— Additional reporting by Elissa Esher