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Port Authority bus terminal expands in Washington Heights, as part of a challenge to make it a destination

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The Port Authority Bus Terminal got bigger on Wednesday, but the expansion didn't take place at what's already the busiest bus terminal in the world, in Midtown.

Instead, it took place at the other Port Authority terminal, uptown. The opening of a variety of shops here is the latest stage in a two years-long renovation and improvement project at the massive facility connected to the George Washington Bridge.

Wednesday's opening is significant, but whether or not it can be sustained, and attract even more badly needed business, is yet to be seen.

The GWB Bus Terminal, as it's also called, is actually one of the busiest ground transportation facilities in the country. Still, the 6 million annual travelers at the 178th Street facility are dwarfed in number by the 60 million who use the main Port Authority terminal, at 42nd Street.

The uptown site was fully refurbished two years ago. Included in the renovation were spaces totaling 120,000 square feet that were quickly occupied by large box stores that local residents spoke about on the street.

"I've been to Marshalls and the Gap," said Paula Aurich.

"I go into the Gap and the market," said Simon Dominitz. He was referring to the Fine Fare supermarket on site, which is now the only food market of its size in the neighborhood.

The large stores are doing well, according to the Port Authority and other local business owners. They said that the Marshalls is one of the highest selling locations of the chain in the country. Its parent company, TJX, said that it does not publicly share its retail sales information.

In any case, in contrast to the big box stores, the terminal facility has at least a dozen smaller storefronts inside, most of which have sat empty since the terminal's renovation in May of 2017.

That changed, officially, on Wednesday.

"We're from The Bronx," said Victor Sidberry, the co-owner of one of a half dozen shops that had their grand opening on Wednesday. His business, VSBerry, a gourmet frozen yogurt shop, relocated to the GWB Bus Terminal for the same reason that almost all of the other new business did.

"The advantage is great traffic," said Luis Perez, the owner of GWB Juice Bar here. "Tons of people pass through here every day," he told PIX11 News.

To be precise, at least 18,000 people go through the terminal daily, passing to and from buses and the subway, which is also connected to the Port Authority facility.

Most of those crowds, though, are during rush hour. The challenge, the new business owners said, is to get hurried passengers to slow down enough to pick up a gourmet yogurt, or a barista-made coffee.

"Usually, we give a lot of samples out," said Chamese Acosta, the other co-owner of VSBerry Yogurt, "and then they come the next day," she said.

The Port Authority, which operates the entire bus terminal in conjunction with the operation of the entire George Washington Bridge, took out some ads at bus shelters in the neighborhood, and posted signs in nearby city blocks, but at least half of all of the residents who spoke with PIX11 News about the terminal described it in similar ways.

"Obviously, they're not very noticeable from outside," said John Wilkerson. "They're kind of hidden, almost."

"I rarely ever stop in," said Marina Pieretti, who lives nearby. "They don't advertise for [the stores], really," she said, pointing to the south side of the massive facility, on 178th Street. "You don't see anything on this side, to see what's in there."

Ken Sagrestano, the general manager of the George Washington Bridge and Bus Terminal, agreed.

"I'd say that they were right," he told PIX11 News.

"[We're] getting the word out," Sagrestano continued. "That's the whole reason that we're having this event."

On Wednesday, at the grand opening, the area that included the new shops was filled with balloon sculptures, workers handed out gift bags containing coupons, a DJ spun dance hits, and a face painter covered children's faces with designs.

The company that carried out the facility's renovation two years ago filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month. That has made the retail spaces more readily available, according to the Wall Street Journal

"Does it look like it's affecting anything?" asked Sagrestano, the general manager.

He said that the contractor's bankruptcy has done nothing to prevent the facility from growing. The terminal has two floors of retail, about two-thirds of which is now occupied, or will be before Thanksgiving, Sagrestano said.

"We at the Port Authority," said the general manager, "are trying to do all we can to market these businesses on behalf of the community."

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