Blaze destroys Westchester Square shops

Firefighters battle a 3-alarm fire in a row of stores at Westchester Ave and E. Tremont Avenue in Westchester Square on Sunday, March 22. Photo by Kevin Heckman

A fire tore through businesses in Westchester Square. The merchants association and city agencies are working to relocate the affected businesses to other parts of the square.

National Restaurant, On the Square Florist, Design Nails by Asia, Peking House Chinese Restaurant, Osvaldo’s Barber Shop, and Miami Lounge on Westchester Avenue near the corner of Ferris Place were completely destroyed in a fire that began at 6:07 a.m. on Sunday, March 22.

Firefighters brought the three-alarm blaze under control nearly three hours later, at 8:52 a.m.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but the FDNY believes it began in the Miami Lounge bar that was under construction.

“Six merchants were affected by this fire, but thankfully most had insurance,” said John Bonizio, president of the Association of Merchants and Professionals of Westchester Square. “We are working with the merchants and the NYC Small Business Services to get these businesses relocated to other properties in the Square.”

For some merchants, the fire was a gut-wrenching event; long-time merchants saw their life’s work vanish in the flames and smoke.

“It was 6:30 a.m. when the fire marshal called. He said ‘There’s a fire – you need to get here,’” said John Kaltsas, longtime owner of On the Square Florist, which has been in his family since 1926. “When I got to the area it was devastating. In all these years, I never expected to face something like this. It was like losing a member of my family.”

Kaltsas recently transferred the business to his niece, who will operate it temporarily from another location.

Another business, Peking House Chinese Restaurant, is already planning to reopen at another location.

“We hope to reopen,” said Jackie Huang, owner of the take-out restaurant. “We plan on working with the SBS and the merchants association to relocate.”

Some who live nearby, worried that the fire would sap the vitality that has been returning to the square after decades of less tha robust business activity.

“I think the fire will be devastating for the area because these were local stores, and they did a lot of business within the neighborhood,” said resident Pat O’Rourke. “I frequented the Chinese restaurant, the flower shop, and the coffee shop. It was a big fire. We hope the businesses come back.”

Bonizio, of Metro Optics, is in the process of forming a Business Improvement District on the square. He was upbeat about the future, and said that the fire offered merchants the opportunity to band together for the common good.

“The important thing that the fire shows us is why it is so important for individual merchants to be part of a larger, organized community effort,” Bonizio said.

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