Stirring the pot on Church Avenue

For many of the borough’s shopping strips, the trick — definitely easier said than done — is striking the right balance between the divergent needs of diverse populations living cheek by jowl to each other.

Nowhere is this truer, perhaps, than on Church Avenue in Flatbush, which lies between the yuppie haven of Prospect Park South, and the working and middle class neighborhoods to the north and east.

Particularly on its western end, between the Brighton line and Coney Island Avenue, the strip is more promise than performance, a thoroughfare where the potential exceeds the reality, but where – if the correct formula is concocted – the payoff could be significant.

Enter the Church Avenue Business Improvement District, whose Executive Director, Mark Dicus, is lining up all his ducks in an effort to recreate and revivify the strip’s western end, where at present, he noted, “It’s very quiet,” and there’s “not a lot of foot traffic, not a lot of retail.”

To engage neighbors on a variety of socio-economic strata, he stressed, “We have to provide retail that speaks to all of these groups so that they all want to shop there, which is what makes it challenging.”

The BID has been trying to stir things up all along the strip for a while. In 2009, they asked the Pratt Center for Community Development to study Church Avenue, and come up with recommendations for both its eastern and its western reaches. The BID also did a shopper survey, working with the Pratt Center, which analyzed the results of the survey in conjunction with its own study.

By December, the suggestions that the Pratt Center came up with for Church Avenue’s western end were ready for prime time, so the BID called together a focus group made up of local residents, merchants, property owners and public officials to listen to the ideas and respond.

Among the ideas that the BID is pursuing – with the support of those who attended the focus group meeting – is trying to create a little restaurant row at the strip’s western reach, where there are already several restaurants, said Dicus.

“We want to really leverage that, help strengthen them to attract a broader audience and also create a destination.,” he explained.

In addition, the BID is now in talks with Preferred Health Partners, a local medical center which has a parking lot at the corner of Coney Island Avenue that is visibly “dormant” on weekends, Dicus said.

The goal there, he went on, is to create another kind of destination – a flea market, a performance space, a farmer’s market, or some combination of them – that would enliven the area and bring more people out onto the street to shop and eat.

In addition, said Dicus, the BID is looking at ways to engage families who utilize the nearby Parade Grounds, and bring them to Church Avenue to eat and to shop. With nearly 100 soccer games played there on weekend days throughout a significant portion of the year, the crowd represents an untapped market for Church Avenue merchants, Dicus said.

“We know people look for places to eat,” Dicus went on. “Our job is to let them know that, one block away, there are opportunities to grab a bite to eat or do what every shopping they need to do.”

In addition, said Dicus, the BID would be looking for merchants – such as sporting goods stores – whose offerings might appeal to the crowds that frequent the Parade Grounds.

Overall, for Church Avenue, the BID is also looking at ways to improve the ambience of the strip, and give it more of a town square feel by adding benches and other amenities, “Sort of like what happened on Cortelyou Road,” offered Dicus.

To that end, he went on, the BID has “some funding for lighting” allocated by City Councilmember Mathieu Eugene, and is now looking for additional funding for streetscape and storefront improvement projects.

Dicus is optimistic that change is just around the corner for the western end of Church Avenue. The stakeholders who attended the focus group were enthusiastic about the ideas presented, he said, and, generally, there is excitement about the area that makes it ripe for improvements.

“I think there’s enough community interest that people want to make it happen,” Dicus opined. And, he added, “The BID is committed to making a go of it.”