By KATIE HOOS
Faced with the reality that TD’s Rye Smoke Shop could soon close due to pending rent increases, some city officials are brainstorming ideas to save the shop, including installing a bank on a portion of the shop’s property despite the city’s decade old moratorium on new banks.
The more than 90-year-old Smoke Shop is often thought of as a central meeting place in Rye, selling newspapers, cigarettes, lottery tickets, candy and other items to generations of Rye residents from its home on the corner of Purchase Street and Elm Place. But the building’s owner, John Fareri, who bought it in 2008, claims he can no longer afford to carry the shop on its current rent and will require the historic Smoke Shop to pay a higher rent or risk lease termination.
“It’s time, as developers, to allow us to make a fair return on our investment,” Neil DeLuca, a representative of Fareri, said.
According to Tony D’Onofrio, who owns the Smoke Shop with his mother Peg, they are paying approximately $48 per square foot a month to rent the property, while the average price per square foot along Purchase Street is between $50 to $55.
One possible solution being discussed by the Rye City Council to save the Smoke Shop is allowing a bank to enter a portion of the building.
The proposal, which will be further discussed at an Aug. 4 public hearing before the City Council, would permit a bank to lease a portion of Fareri’s property, which currently consists of the Smoke Shop, Plush Blow and the former location of Sundae Funday. The bank would occupy the Plush Blow site—which faces Purchase Street—and wrap around to the Elm Street side of the building to the vacant Sundae Funday location, leaving the current space carved out for the Smoke Shop. According to DeLuca, the bank would pay a high enough rent for the Smoke Shop to stay put.
“We believe the bank we’ve talked to, and even another one, might want to pay above market rent to be in Rye,” he said. “What that allows us to do is allow the Smoke Shop to continue for a time at a below market rent.”
Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, who worked with Fareri to come up with the bank proposal, believes the Smoke Shop is an iconic structure worth saving.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a win-win situation,” he said. “It’s really an inventive way to go about things.”
But there’s one major roadblock that might interfere with the plan.
In 2005, the city passed a moratorium banning any new banks from opening in Rye’s central business district because retailers complained the banks were raising rents throughout Rye’s commercial hub. At the time of the moratorium,
nine banks existed downtown; currently there are seven after the dissolution of Washington Mutual and the merger of Bank of New York and Chase.
The bank moratorium was put into effect under the administration of Mayor Steve Otis, a Democrat, who presided over a Republican-led City Council at that time.
In order to accommodate the proposed plan, the city would have to modify the city code and lift the bank ban. According to Sack, if the city were to move forward with this plan, it would likely create a special use permit to allow a bank on this property only, so long as the property owner engages in historic preservation, including preserving an extent of the building’s exterior.
“To be clear, this is not getting rid of the ban on banks. The ban would stay in effect, but this is an exception,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to fight for what makes Rye so special, and I’m not going to let it slip away.”
However, some city officials are not completely sold on the bank proposal and have reservations about possible consequences in modifying the ban.
Councilwoman Laura Brett, a Republican, said she has not yet formed an opinion on the best way to handle the Smoke Shop conundrum.
“I still have an open mind, but I am concerned about the thorough analysis that the city engaged in when it enacted the bank ban and I don’t necessarily want to overturn the work of a prior City Council,” she said.
Councilwoman Julie Killian, a Republican, said she needs further clarification before making a determination about lifting the bank ban.
“I would like to have a full understanding of exactly what [Fareri’s] plan is and what will happen to the other stores,” she said. “I’m waiting to see what happens at the public hearing and what possible legislation ensues from that. I think we’re in the fact finding stage at this point.”
According to Brett, the city’s Landmarks Advisory Committee, which works with the City Council in designating and preserving historic sites, is trying to encourage the property owner to designate the property as a historic landmark. When a building is designated as a historic landmark, it’s given legal protection from destruction and is typically more difficult to alter, requiring review. These restrictions can often deter landlords from landmarking without incentive.
Under the city code, a site cannot be designated a landmark without the owner’s consent unless it is on the National Register of Historic Places. To convince Fareri to landmark the site, the Landmarks Advisory Committee is exploring how to get him a 10-year tax break under the New York State Historic Real Property Tax Exemption, Brett said.
Local residents expressed differing opinions on the situation, weighing the value of the Smoke Shop versus the impact an additional bank would have on downtown.
Lauren Sorrel, 44, expressed her support for the bank proposal and is willing to do whatever it takes to save the Smoke Shop.
“I like the Smoke Shop. I think it’s a great family-run store,” she said. “It’s worth the fight to keep it open.”
“I think it’s important to keep historical landmarks,” resident Lisa Dominici, 50, said. “When this was happening two summers ago, I was sad to hear the Smoke Shop was closing.”
Sharon Bergman, 58, said Purchase Street already has enough banks and was not pleased with the idea of adding another.
“It has become a venue to banks,” she said. “I’m now less inclined to shop here because it has more banks and less places to shop.”
For his part, D’Onofrio said it’s his desire to stay where his family has been for more than 40 years, nearly half of the time the Smoke Shop has been in existence.
“This is the business we love, this is the community we love,” he said. “We don’t want to go.”
-With reporting by Taylor Khan and Conor McKoy