Even as several neighbors do their best to secure the future use of Scheele's as a community-serving grocer, the shopkeepers are ready to move on. A group of committed community members, including Mike Peabody and Marilyn Melkonian, have been working tirelessly with the new property owner, Jordan O’Neill, to ensure that a small grocery store can thrive at 1331 29th Street; it might just have to be operated by someone else.
Shin K. Lee and Kye S. Lee have run Scheele's market for more than 20 years and have long-since earned their retirement. Mr. Lee told Patch, "we are very grateful that they think so much of us," about the community's efforts raise the funds to maintain a low-rent level so a grocer can survive in that corner.
And until a few weeks ago, it looked like the Lee's would be able to sign a new lease that they would then transfer to a new shop owner when the right buyer came along.
But in an update to involved neighbors sent Monday, Peabody wrote:
Sadly, the Lee’s may be leaving Scheele’s. Mrs. Lee wants very much to retire. Jordan O’Neill, the new owner, has offered them a new lease and Marilyn (Melkonian) and I have helped him negotiate one they could accept, but as yet to no avail.
O'Neil, a real estate investor and former banker, recognizes the value of the property to the East Village. He said he was willing to make concessions to neighbors to keep the property as a grocery store for the next 15 years with their financial support.
Friends of Scheeles’s has agreed to fund a $70,000 covenant for the space including a renovation of the property, which still has some of its original woodwork and ice boxes. The non-profit would also pay the $8,000 in property taxes on the store, which previous owners had covered but came as a surprise to O'Neil.
Though he could, by right, develop the space into a large, single-family home, O'Neil is working with Friend's of Scheele's to help maintain a part of East Village history.
"You wouldn’t meet folks if you were just getting into you car and going to your house," he explained. At Scheele's, "You run into people in the store and shake their hand and you get to know people."
Peabody recognizes that the problem for many small businesses is that the tax rates and rents are not always sustainable.
"People do no regulate relationships instead they regulate property; of course that is easier," he said. But he hopes in current efforts to evolve the city's zoning codes, there could be a solution that takes into account the value of a business to the community, not just the value of the land.
The covenant is in place, the lease is the only question mark. Peabody wrote Monday that there were two potential other groups who might be interested in starting a lease for the store. In the meanwhile, the non-profit must raise funds to fulfill its end of the bargain.
Friends of Scheele's has to come up with half of the $70,000 by the end of February and the rest by May, according to Peabody. Though he did not seem too concerned about meeting that goal when Patch talked with him earlier this month, he did express concern for the continuing operation of the corner store in his email Monday.
Peabody wrote, "We hope the Lees will stay in place at least for a few more months so a smooth transition can occur. We encourage you all to express that hope to the Lees when you see them."