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Proposed Store on Upper East Side Is Tempest in a Big Gulp Cup

Residents of the affluent Manhattan enclave say a 7-Eleven sandwiched among homegrown bodegas and delis will sully the neighborhood.

October 23, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On paper, it seems like the perfect fit: the city that never sleeps and the top purveyor of 24-hour-a-day convenience.

In fact, when a 7-Eleven opened in Manhattan this summer for the first time in 23 years, New Yorkers happily queued up in long lines to purchase ice-cold Slurpees on a bustling corner of East 23rd Street.

But not all residents have welcomed the presence of the world's largest convenience store chain. Another 7-Eleven in Manhattan is set to open in mid-November in an affluent, leafy neighborhood on the city's Upper East Side, and the denizens are none too pleased.

"This monstrosity, this carbuncle" is how one resident described the store in a flier posted last week on Curbed.com, a local real estate blog.

"This will destroy two of the most beautiful, tranquil blocks in the neighborhood [and] add to the already horrendous garbage, vermin and rodent problem with rowdiness, bringing serious beer drinkers, taxis on breaks and other undesirables," fumed the writer, who urged neighbors to complain to their elected officials.

7-Eleven spokeswoman Margaret Chabris rejected the notion that the store on the corner of York Avenue and East 84th Street would bring down the neighborhood.

"We really take exception -- we do not have rats in our stores," Chabris said.

"We have changed the way we do everything" -- for example, with daily fresh-food deliveries and offerings customized for each community, she said. "We just ask them to get to know us a little bit. A lot of our products are upscale and high-end."

But for many Upper East Side residents, the issue is a larger one: creeping homogenization of a city that takes pride in its one-of-a-kind, homegrown shops. National stores like Banana Republic, Starbucks, Whole Foods and Home Depot can now be found throughout Manhattan.

"We have more and more chains all over the place," third-grade teacher Penelope Sharrock, 23, said on a recent afternoon as she stood outside the still-empty storefront that will house the 7-Eleven. It used to be a family shoe shop, then an independent video store with a large collection of foreign films.

A 7-Eleven will make the area "less of a family neighborhood," Sharrock said. "It will feel more like strip-mall America."

For now, this stretch of York Avenue reflects the upscale tastes of the residents in the ivy-covered brick row houses on nearby streets. There are three small delis, an antiques shop, a wine store, a florist and several sidewalk cafes.

Several residents balk at an all-night store that sells beer, fearing it will attract transients and litter.

"I really do feel it's incongruous with the nature of the neighborhood," said Judy Cutler, vice president of East 84th Street Neighborhood Assn. "This block is more similar to living in some rural little community."

Betsy Timberman, a fundraiser for the New York City Ballet, said she and other residents successfully fought to keep a Toys R Us from opening in the neighborhood five years ago.

"We didn't want 24-hour delivery, noise, that sort of thing," she said. "I just don't like the idea of chain stores. New York has always been a place of mom-and-pop stores. We're giving way to big boxes already."

Ironically, it was the local bodegas that drove 7-Eleven out of Manhattan two decades ago. At the time, distribution problems prevented the chain from stocking fresh food every day, putting it at a competitive disadvantage with the city's ubiquitous corner shops. The last 7-Eleven in Manhattan closed in 1982, although the chain remained in New York's other four boroughs.

In recent years, the franchise improved its distribution system and decided to make a foray back into urban centers. Still another 7-Eleven is to open near Times Square by the end of the year, with several more Manhattan locations planned for 2006.

"It's a key growth area for us," Chabris said.

Now it's the local grocers who are worried.

"We're going to lose a lot of business -- everyone is," said a glum Khalil Elreda, assistant manager of Hiram Grocery, which sits across York Avenue from the future 7-Eleven.

Michelle Newkirk, a 58-year-old legal assistant, views the arrival of the convenience store as "absolutely horrid."

"It's going to devastate the two bodegas on the corner," she said as she walked her dog Barney to a nearby park. "Those are caring people who know the neighborhood."

Chabris said the 7-Eleven had actually been franchised to a local merchant operating another business nearby, and she added that the company was eager to work with local residents to assuage their concerns. The store has already purchased "No Loitering" signs and plans to contact the local block association soon. She thinks many neighbors will be pleased to discover that the convenience store offers not only Big Gulps and hot dogs, but a new line of Ghirardelli cocoas, as well as imported beer, health bars and sandwiches made with capicola ham.

And no need to worry about garish neon ruining the ambience -- the store's trademark green, orange and red striped marquee will be lighted with a low-emitting fluorescent bulb. "It's kind of muted, soft and more opaque," she said.

But several residents said they couldn't imagine a store commonly found along highways fitting into their neighborhood.

"You use [7-Eleven] to get gas and maybe a candy bar and coffee while you're on the road," Timberman said. "But I don't associate it with anything particularly attractive."

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