Fortunes change for Austin St., Metropolitan Ave. in Queens

The fortunes of two major commercial stretches in Forest Hills appear to be going in decidedly different directions.

What’s happening to Austin St. in the north and Metropolitan Ave. in the south offers a glimpse of how once-dominant business areas can become a victim of their own success – and how lesser-known locales can take advantage of that.

Locals maintain the advantage will always rest with Austin St., which has long benefited from its desirable location near the 71st-Continental Aves. subway station.

But soaring rents and vacant storefronts are now plaguing Austin, while Metropolitan – with lower rents, easier parking and many new shops and restaurants – seems on the rise.

Austin ailing?

For years, Austin St. has been a shopping mecca nestled between busy Queens Blvd. and leafy Forest Hills Gardens.

It was once lined with family-owned shops that offered everything from clothing and jewelry to records and gourmet foods.

“It was almost like walking down Fifth Avenue,” said Karen Koslowitz, the former City Councilwoman who has lived in Forest Hills for 47 years and may run for her old seat next year.

But Austin has changed dramatically in recent years. Many specialty shops have been replaced by chains. Scores of banks dot the area. And empty storefronts are commonplace.

One reason may be soaring rents.

Tony Rincon said he was lucky to find an affordable rent when he wanted to move his Renegade hair salon to a larger spot on Austin St.

“The chain stores are able to pay high rents,” Rincon said. “What really keeps this neighborhood going is the little stores.”

One reason there may be more vacancies is that landlords are willing to wait to get the tenants and rents they want, said Leslie Brown, president of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce.

A large space at Austin St. and 69th Road that once housed Annie Sez and Mandees sits vacant. And a shop on a prime stretch of 71st Ave. has turned into a boarded-up eyesore.

Brown admitted some property owners “may have a different vision” than people who live in the neighborhood.

“It would be nice to get a deli and a coffee shop and a local hardware store – even if it was high end,” Brown said.

Mighty Metro in the Making?

Less than a mile separates 71st Ave. at Austin St. – the heart of that district – from the corner of 71st Ave. and Metropolitan Ave., known locally as Metro.

There, developers David Koptiev and Sammy Aranbayev are putting the finishing touches on what many consider a symbol of Metro’s rise: a two-story shopping center for eight tenants.

A T-Mobile store and a fitness gym have already signed 10-year leases to join the developers’ realty group in the 12,000-square-foot space, and plan to open as early as Nov. 1, Koptiev said.

He also confirmed talks with a bank and a coffee chain – rumored to be Dunkin’ Donuts, not Starbucks – to move into a spot previously occupied by a run-down auto repair shop.

But that’s far from the only activity on the block.

Customers have long frequented ethnic restaurants, antique shops and – at 72nd Rd. – the Cinemart Cinemas and Eddie’s Sweet Shop, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.

More options entered the mix in recent years: a wine bar, 7-Eleven, CVS pharmacy and new eateries serving everything from Italian to Japanese fare.

A school complex with an entrance at Selfridge St. is scheduled to open in a few years.

Just beyond the Forest Hills border, as Metro reaches the hectic intersection with Woodhaven Blvd., customers flock to a new complex with Trader Joe’s, Staples and Michaels arts and crafts.

At 72nd Ave., Dom Realty is offering a former law office for $3,000 a month. A doctor, a restaurant and a deli are vying to get in, said agent Rafael Normatoe.

And a long-vacant space near Sizzler at 70th Rd. may get a dry cleaner or nail salon, said ReMax agent Nancy Yen.

Likening Metro to a “small-town Main St.,” Forest Hills civic leader Barbara Stuchinski said these changes will strengthen the local economy while maintaining its friendly style.

“It’s a more inclusive neighborhood area – the way Austin St. used to be when I was a teenager, which is 60 years ago,” Stuchinski said.

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