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Dramatic Retail Falloff In N.Y.’s Midtown Area

Retail activity in the Grand Central Terminal district slowed to barely a trickle Thursday in the aftermath of an underground steam-pipe explosion.

NEW YORK — Retail activity in the Grand Central Terminal district slowed to barely a trickle Thursday in the aftermath of an underground steam-pipe explosion that restricted access to the area and left asbestos-coated debris.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during a news conference that, in a “best-case scenario,” it would take “several days” for the neighborhood to return to normalcy. “Safety is our number-one priority and we’re not going to compromise that,” he said.

The landmark terminal on Manhattan’s east side, which is a centerpiece for tens of thousands of rail and subway commuters each day and contains scores of stores, restaurants and other businesses, appeared almost deserted before noon on Thursday, and commercial activity wasn’t much better elsewhere in the neighborhood.

“I don’t think there will be any customers today,” said Melissa Smart, the assistant manager at Erwin Pearl, a shop in the terminal’s Lexington Avenue Passage. “Our goal for yesterday was $2,471 and we only did $1,089. [The explosion] happened during rush hour when we get most of our business.”

Terminal retailers such as Kenneth Cole and Banana Republic remained closed on Thursday. The stores, which have facades on 42nd Street, are not accessible through Grand Central.

A Kenneth Cole spokeswoman said the company’s Grand Central store became an impromptu shelter just after the rush-hour blast. “At 6 p.m. [Wednesday] customers came into our store seeking refuge,” she said. “They went to the basement and the stockroom. They thought it was a bomb and that they would be safe in the basement. The store employees let anybody in and put them wherever they wanted to go. At 6:15, police came and told [everyone] they had to evacuate the store.”

The Grand Central store is one of Cole’s busiest, the spokeswoman said, adding, “We’re waiting to hear when we’re allowed to open.”

A spokesman for Gap Inc. said, “Because of the debris around the outside, we’ve had to stay closed. We think we’ll be able to open the Banana store in a day or two.”

At Gap’s store on Third Avenue at 42nd Street, salespeople far outnumbered the few shoppers who wandered in, and the store was considering closing an hour or two earlier than normal. Sales associate Berlinda Letang said, “It’s been really slow and quiet.”

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Two Gap shoppers, who asked not to be named, said they only came into the store because they were surprised it was open.

At Origins, located in Grand Central, sales associate Phyllis Bowling was the only person in the store. “This is impacting our business in a big way,” she said, noting that the store usually takes in $2,000 to $3,000 a day. “Yesterday was wild. I walked out to the window and saw this big black geyser. The noise was incredible. We came back and closed the store.”

Kaytee Stoppe, manager of Pink Slip, a lingerie shop in the terminal’s Lexington Passage, said, “Today will be a washout and pretty much the rest of the week. We’ll reduce our staff, which is me. We usually do $3,000 to $4,000 a day and Thursday and Friday are our busiest days. We’re just going to stay on top of it and cut corners where we can.”

Several stores in the passage were closed.

“We’re waiting in case they do happen to open [the Lexington Avenue entrance to the terminal], said Jenny Robayo, a sales associate at Toto, a handbag shop. “We usually do $3,500 a day in sales.”

Susan Freeman, the co-owner of accessories store La Craisa, said, “I’ve made one sale today. We’ve been through 9/11, the blackout and the subway strike threat. We won’t make any money today, but we’ll bring in new merchandise and label it. We certainly won’t cover our expenses, but we take the good with the bad.”

A police offi cer standing guard at Vanderbilt and East 42nd Street said she had been turning away people who were trying to get to Banana Republic, Kenneth Cole and other nearby East 42nd Street stores. Under a small tent on East 44th Street near Vanderbilt Avenue, a representative from the Offi ce of Emergency Management distributed protective masks to police offi cers and other authorized personnel.

The blast occurred shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday near 41st Street and Lexington Avenue as the rush hour was in full swing and in the height of the summer tourism season. One woman died and as many as 45 people were injured when a 24-inch steam pipe dating from 1924 exploded in a geyser of smoke, mud and other debris, sparking fears of a terror attack. Authorities speculated that it might have been caused when cold water from heavy rains got into the pipe.

Test results of solid debris and dust were positive for asbestos, but city offi cials said there was not asbestos in the air and minimized any health concerns.

Emergency crews launched a huge cleanup effort, creating a “frozen zone” between 40th and 43rd Streets and Vanderbilt and Third Avenues, closing traffi c to pedestrians and vehicles. City offi cials also shut portions of Lexington and Park Avenues as well as East 42nd Street and other side streets. The only access into the terminal was through the MetLife building on 47th Street. Subway service was fully restored Thursday afternoon. Also on Thursday, the east side of Third Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets was reopened to pedestrians. Lexington Avenue from 37th to 38th Street remains closed, and could be closed at least until early next week, Bloomberg said.

En route to Grand Central Station, Joan Broder of Purchase, N.Y., practically had the Modell’s sporting goods store on East 42nd Street to herself when she bought running clothes for her husband. She also shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue earlier in the day, and didn’t think twice about going to Midtown.

“Being a New Yorker, you sort of get immune to it. You can’t stop doing what you do. You can get killed walking across the street.”

Modell’s kept its doors open to try to woo pedestrians passing by. Instead of having four or fi ve cashiers ringing up purchases, which is typical, the retailer only needed one. What few shoppers there were in the store sailed right through the checkout. Security guard Jermaine Osborne said, “Usually, there would defi – nitely be a line here.”

At Johnston & Murphy’s customer-free Madison Avenue store, a saleswoman stared absently out the window, fl ossing her teeth.

Business was closer to normal a bit farther from the blast site, on Madison Avenue. At Daffy’s, Alicia Mullenix said she had no qualms about shopping in the area. “The mayor said that it’s not terrorist-related,” she said.

Ria Archie, fl oor manager for Daffy’s women’s department, said, “People are still shopping. We still had the usual rush between 1 and 3 p.m. today.”

One block north, at J. Crew, Lauren DeStefano said she left work early to shop for vacation clothes, since her Helmsley Building office had no air-conditioning because of the repair work. Unfortunately, that J. Crew location didn’t have any central air, either.

Across the street, Brooks Brothers had a smattering of shoppers, but sales associate Anibal Jesus noted that some of the store’s regulars have been affected by the frozen zone. “Some of our customers come into Grand Central and they can’t cross the streets as they normally would. The traffi c patterns have changed.”

Almost 900 businesses are within the jurisdiction of the Grand Central Partnership, a business development group. About 10 percent are stores that sell apparel and accessories.

-With contributions by Whitney Beckett