This is beyond tragic.
April 11, 2004
War of the Roses
By ERIKA KINETZ
Gary Page, president of the florists' trade group.
SAL SADEK stood in the open-air patio of his 15-year-old flower shop, Nature's Foliage and Gardens, a tall, solid man oblivious to the late-winter chill. "After spring," he said, gesturing to the bags of fertilizer and dwarf Alberta spruce trees around him, "this is going to be history."
He is right. Work has already begun on the apartment building that will rise on his lot, at West 28th Street and the Avenue of the Americas.
Mr. Sadek is the latest casualty in a long, quiet war of attrition that has transformed New York's once-bustling flower district into a motley and diminishing collection of merchants. Where once there were more than 60 flower wholesalers, there are 32, according to Gary Page, president of the Flower Market Association, a trade group.
Battered by real estate pressures, a tough economy and other adversities, the wholesalers and a number of flower retailers huddle mostly along 28th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway amid import-export companies, wholesale accessories outlets and sidewalk pocketbook vendors.
The Flower Market Association has been trying to address the issue. Its members offered to buy an 80,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. Although the deal fell through a few weeks ago, the trade group is eyeing the far western edge of Gansevoort Market; in December the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation received a $30,000 grant from the J. M. Kaplan Fund to study that site. The flower merchants are also looking at a building the Durst Organization is constructing at 11th Avenue and 57th Street.
But some of the merchants fear that these relocation efforts will end the way all previous efforts have: in failure.
"They've been moving since I was in diapers," said Steven Rosenberg, co-owner of Superior Florists, which was founded in 1930 by his grandfather. "And they're still here."
Part of the trouble is that what the merchants seek - 100,000 to 150,000 square feet of space, ideally in Manhattan, that offers ample parking and affordable rent - is elusive. But the market also suffers from rifts between wholesalers and retailers, and between owners and renters, that make agreement an elusive goal.
"The first time we talked to the flower market was in 1968," said Douglas Durst, a co-president of his family's company. The Dursts then had a site available at 43rd Street and 10th Avenue, but according to Mr. Durst, "At that point, they just didn't have strong enough leadership in their group to keep a consensus of what to do." The site became the Manhattan Plaza Towers.
Now an ominous clock is ticking. Many merchants predict dire consequences if they don't quickly get their act together and move. "We are only a very short period of time away from leases expiring," said Councilwoman Christine Quinn, whose district includes the area, "and losing the flower market."
In Pursuit of the Bell Song Tulip
Despite the current troubles in the flower district, many people are still loyal to the old-fashioned, sociable way in which business unfolds there. In their eyes, buying quality flowers is still a matter of touch, smell and trust. One such loyalist is Seth Cohen, a designer for Atlas Floral Decorations in Manhattan and the in-house florist at the Pierre Hotel, which monthly buys 30,000 stems, as they're known in the business.
"They know the quality I'm looking for," said Mr. Cohen, who spoke before sunrise on a recent morning as he shopped for flowers to decorate the hotel's lobbies. "They take care of me." Mr. Cohen, who looks a little worn from so many predawn workdays, knows who has the best eyes on the street, and who will, as he says, "give me a little price."
The other morning, he started with a quick tour of the market, patting down a purplish-blue sea of hydrangeas, testing them for freshness, and stopping to smell a fat, butter-colored bunch of narcissus. There was a steady traffic of roses on the predawn streets, which were lined with white vans and banks of pussy willows. The sweet, wet smell of commingled flowers permeated everything, and splashes of color - yellow tulips, bales of pink magnolias - spilled from the storefronts.
By 6:40, Mr. Cohen had ensconced himself amid the dense banks of flowers at Dutch Flower Line, a wholesaler, for coffee, serious shopping and some banter with Casper Trap, the manager. Soon, Mr. Cohen had swept up 150 Bell Song tulips, distinctive because of their bubble-gum-pink petals edged with lacy white fringe, and 200 sweet peas to go with them.
The tulips went for 90 cents a stem, and though they were just the beginning of Mr. Cohen's purchases the prices didn't seem to be budging much. "It's a daily fight between me and Seth," Mr. Trap joked.
Mr. Cohen, who typically visits the market three mornings a week and spends up to two hours - "A lot of it is social,'' he explained - said he would hate to see the place disappear. "I would do everything in my head, but I think that would standardize my product more," he said. "I come here and look at these flowers. They speak to me emotionally. I would hate to give that up."
A Garden in Midtown
Mr. Cohen, who has been shopping at the flower market for a decade, is heir to a rich Manhattan tradition that extends back to the 19th century, when flower pushcarts and shops, many owned by immigrants from Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and especially Greece, emerged to cater to rising demand. Growers from Long Island took the ferry into the city and went from retailer to retailer, selling their wares.
By the 1870's, according to Sarah Henry, the deputy director for programs at the Museum of the City of New York, these transactions were consolidated near the East 34th Street ferry landing. With the emergence of the site, a new class of businessman appeared: the flower wholesaler, who gathered cut flowers from growers and sold them to retailers for a commission.
By the mid-1890's most wholesalers had moved to Sixth Avenue between 26th and 29th Streets. They wanted to be closer to their customers, both the upscale department stores along Ladies' Mile and the elegant residences on Fifth Avenue, but also the theaters, restaurants and brothels in the nearby Tenderloin district.
The flower district soon became entrenched and flourished there into the 1970's. In its heyday, it drew buyers from throughout the metropolitan region and even from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. More tons of flowers changed hands in New York than anywhere in the world except Amsterdam, according to a 1977 newspaper article.
The old market was dominated by family businesses, and by men. In a back room of his shop, Mitchell Vlachos, an owner of Harry Vlachos Inc., keeps a yellowed photograph of a 1935 dinner given by the Wholesale Cut Flower Protective Association at a restaurant called Billy the Oysterman's. In the picture, 36 men in suits, each with a carnation boutonniere, sit at long tables. Only two are smiling.
"The old-school flower market had character," said Mike Nikolis, an owner of Bill's Flower Market. Men with cigars clamped in their teeth roamed the streets before dawn, and their bartering was cut with off-color jokes. There was a local bookie, who could be found at Pete and Nick's, a long-gone coffee shop that served as a market-gathering place. And unlike enclaves like the Fulton Fish Market, the flower district, with its plant-lined streets, sat right in the much-traveled heart of Midtown. "Chaos, the smell of chrysanthemums, that's all I remember," Mr. Nikolis said. "You could smell the chrysanthemums from a block away.''
A House Divided
Efforts to move this picturesque place date back decades. As long ago as 1918, a splinter group of wholesalers moved to the Siegel-Cooper Building, on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street; two years later, they moved back to the heart of the district.
By the late 1970's, however, some large wholesalers began to migrate for good to the suburbs. Others followed, and, today, the market is a shell of its former self.
"There is no market," said Mr. Rosenberg of Superior Florists. "It doesn't exist anymore. O.K., that's a little dramatic, but it's not like it used to be." His shop, once flanked by wholesale flower merchants, now finds itself at the outskirts of the district, sandwiched between a wholesale jeweler and a wholesale purse and bag shop.
The forces hurting the market grew stronger in 1995, when the local zoning was changed to allow for housing. Since then, four residential towers, with a total of nearly 1,200 units, have sprung up in the district. The newest addition, the gleaming 38-story Aston, stands at 28th Street and the Avenue of the Americas like a beacon of the neighborhood's future, with rents that range from $2,200 a month for a studio to $2,500 for a two-bedroom unit.
As newcomers move in, clashes increase. Residents have complained about blocked sidewalks and open garbage bags spilling flowers, while merchants complain that parking and traffic problems have made it prohibitively difficult for customers to visit their stores.
The market was also battered by 9/11 and the recession, which merchants say drove down business 25 to 40 percent, as well as industry changes that have cut into profits. Improved transportation and the rise of the Internet have allowed more florists to buy direct from growers in places like Holland. The city's wholesalers face more competition from their suburban counterparts, and the retailers must compete with the ubiquitous New York delis that sell flowers around the clock.
"All my costs have gone up over the years," Mr. Nikolis said. "My rose prices have gone down. Where's the money to be made?" On Valentine's Day in 1978, he said, roses sold retail for $3 a stem. This year, he could get only $2 a stem. Meanwhile, costs of expenses like labor, parking tickets and insurance have climbed.
The Flower Market Association, the trade group that represents wholesalers and retailers, was formed in 1999 to help merchants find a new space, but its efforts have been uphill. Many alternative sites have been identified, only to be rejected. Failed candidates include locations in College Point, Queens, and Hunts Point in the Bronx; the Harlem River Yards; the old Global Crossing building on 11th Avenue; and the former site of the Tunnel nightclub on West 28th Street.
Usable open space in the city is increasingly scarce, but the biggest stumbling block to relocation seems to be disputes among the merchants themselves. James Cooke, the executive director of the association and its only paid, full-time staff member, left in November, after 15 months on the job. There are no plans to replace him. Merchants had hoped the group would grow under his leadership, but membership stands at 44, down from 70 less than two years ago. "The feeling was that we were absolutely nowhere closer after having employed James," said Mr. Page, who is the owner of G. Page Wholesale Flowers as well as the association president.
Mr. Cooke insists that he did everything he could to increase membership but was hobbled by a tough economy and the fact that, as he put it, "flower market people are generally tight with a buck." Mr. Cooke, who now works for a nonprofit group based in Montvale, N.J., said he had trouble getting even charter members to show up for meetings. "I tried to provide as much leadership as I could, given the conflicted signals I got from a variety of people," he said. "There are just some basic disconnects that you can't bridge."
The association suffers from economic fault lines. The biggest problem, according to several merchants, is that some wholesalers sell directly to individual customers, undercutting the retailers' business.
Real estate also divides the group. Merchants who own their shops are in no hurry to leave, even though they could profit greatly from leasing or selling their property. But those who rent are highly vulnerable to the escalating cost of local land. Mr. Sadek, for instance, said he had been paying $30 a square foot, but as he hunted for a new store, the asking prices ran from $120 to $150 a square foot. As Victor Rallis, who has worked for four decades at the flower wholesaler his father started, put it: "The biggest problem I see is that someone always wants to stay behind in the city. Then you get, 'Well, if he's staying, I'm not going.' "
Moreover, while many wholesalers are willing to relocate outside Manhattan, many retailers regard such a move as suicidal. "I'm used to the Upper East Siders coming down and spending $500 to $800 to do their terrace in the spring," Mr. Sadek said. "I'm not going to go fight with Home Depot."
It was a refusal to leave Manhattan that sank the Long Island City proposal. Now the association is focusing on sites in Manhattan, including the new Durst building and the Gansevoort area. Next month, the designer Diane von Furstenberg is to hold a benefit at her studio on West 12th Street to raise more money to study the practicality of a move to Gansevoort.
Fish and Flowers
Although the flower district has been struggling mightily with the issue of relocation, not every other market has had such problems. Next January, for example, every one of the Fulton Fish Market's 50-plus merchants will move into a candy-colored, fully refrigerated $85 million city-built facility in Hunts Point.
Flower sellers have a very different relationship with the city. Three-quarters of the fish market is currently housed in city-owned property, and by moving those merchants out of lower Manhattan, the city will open up a prime piece of real estate. That is not the case with the flower market, whose buildings are held by a variety of private owners. According to Councilwoman Quinn, this may be one reason past administrations didn't stay committed to helping the flower market move.
Another difference is that fish occupy a bigger place in the city economy than flowers. While the Fulton Fish Market employs about 600 people, the flower market has an estimated 250 workers. As for revenue, the city's Economic Development Corporation estimates that the fish market generates $1 billion a year. The agency does not keep statistics for the flower market, but according to a 2000 estimate by the Flower Market Association, its revenues were $100 million to $120 million and have subsequently fallen.
Ms. Quinn suspects that the small size of the flower market may also affect the way it is treated by the city. "At the end of the day, how many jobs an industry creates certainly drives the level of attention they get from government," she said.
Janel Patterson, an E.D.C. spokeswoman, rebutted the claim, saying that the city had been working with the flower market for several years to find adequate, affordable space. "We recognize its importance to the city's economy," she said, "and we're eager to help them in their relocation efforts."
Where the market goes from here is uncertain, although many people expect the flower market to cleave along economic lines: Wholesalers and renters will go, somewhere; retailers and owners will stay.
Mr. Rallis is optimistic that some sort of move will occur. "Moving this market in unison is an impossible task," he said. "Moving it with the least fragmentation possible is doable." If a large part of the market moves, and the site has parking and ample space, he added, "people will want to come."
Others are less sure. "The market is not going to go anywhere," Mr. Nikolis predicted. "Nobody can agree on the time of day. You want them to move to a new location? No way."
What would it take? "A miracle," he replied.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
This is beyond tragic.
Yep, been saying this for years. Why they can't come together and move is beyond me. If they did it right, they could have 75 merchants under one roof. It would be great and business would be good. It would be a tourist spot, even. Dumb.
And why can't they land one of the many parking lots in the area??
do you ship your products to other parts of US? say Oregon?
Hi, I came upon this forum while searching wholesale flowers in nyc. I know this is an old thread but does anyone have any updated information on the flower district?
I'm in Jersey and have recently been buying wholesale flowers here: http://www.bloomsbythebox.com/
I've gotten great flowers and service from them but I'd like to come in to the city to visit a real flower market to see the flowers up close and personal.
Thanks for any updated info!
It's all gone. Along with so many of the other things that used to make this city more interesting to walk through.
^ Do you think things like this will ever come back?
They move. The new flower district will probably move somewhere to Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx if it hasn't already. Eventually artists will move in, the area will become trendy, then expensive, and then they'll have to move again. Because of the centralization of Manhattan these new districts outside of Manhattan don't approach the scope and scale. It's really unfortunate, next to go are all the wholesalers just north of the flower district, coats, perfumes, watches. The bargain district and the furniture district in the LES, what a joke that's become.
^ Bring on the Starbucks and the Duane Reades.
A couple of years a go there was talk of moving the Market to The Meat Packing District. Diane Von Furstenberg held a benefit in 2004 to raise money for the move to the Gansevoort area. Seemingly the financials of the move did not work and City support fell by the wayside.
The NY TIMES in 2005 reported on a couple of other possible locations to replace what was being lost in the 28th Street area.
Both webpage and phone number for The Flower Market Association of NYC are no longer in service.
Apparently there are 3 - 4 flower wholesalers who were interested in the possiblity of that group move to the MP District and who are still in business in the 100 block of W. 28th Street (between Sixth & Seventh Avenues).
That same block has become a bit of a new hotel center (brought to you by McSam and others)
Flower District Clings to Manhattan Roots
Some shops want to bloom in cheaper outer-borough digs, others worry of wilting
byLysandra Ohrstrom | April 11, 2008
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.
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.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Observer.
Rather than upzone entire districts and neighborhoods, the city should start pinpointing sites for development. Was it better that a whole swath of Sixth was wiped out with banal mid-rises for 2 msf of development? All those units could have been accommodated in 2 or 3 towers on existing parking lots and would have had less of an impact on the district.
When neighborhoods are upzoned like this, it threatens to make every building below the new F.A.R. a target for development, until the area becomes uniform and built out.
One reason the West Side zoning blows is that it completely erases the existing, under-F.A.R. layers for one particular type of building all built in the style of a short timeframe. The West Side becomes the equivalent of Dubai.
This is a sore spot for me because it was a favorite thing of mine to walk up Sixth passing through the blocks of flowers and plants out on the sidewalks, and sometimes wander inside shops to feel like I was in a miniature rainforest in some of them. Vanishing New York.
The City is not realizing the value in assuring a place for these strongly rooted, unique, independent businesses that are part of the history and fabric of this island. If you ask me they should be accommodated in the bases of these developments. It's the flower district for crying out loud, not just a bunch of crap! Build up to the sky but leave something of value at ground level. Their customers need them here not out in the boroughs somewhere.
Sixth is a banal condo wasteland now, when it could have been a charming neighborhood of condos and flowers.