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David Scribner
In the West Village of New York City the Cornelia Street Cafe, the iconic hangout for writers and musicians, has closed, a victim of skyrocketing rents.

LEONARD QUART: Combatting New York City’s store vacancies

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By Thursday, Apr 25, 2019 Viewpoints 11

I have just read a piece by a writer bemoaning the disappearance of many of her favorite Village restaurants, a sentiment I share as atmospheric, reasonably priced, historical Village hangouts (e.g., Café Loup, Cornelia Street Cafe) shut down as their rents escalate. And if they are replaced, it’s usually by characterless, overpriced eating places or by chains. Of course, this is not only a Village phenomenon, for wherever I go in the city, including the most upscale avenues like Madison, vacant storefronts stare me in the face. Even on Canal Street—where crowds of tourists as well as locals usually pack the sidewalks searching for bargains (a number of them knock-offs) in bare shops selling perfumes, purses, watches, hardware and industrial plastics at low prices—many of the stores are now shut down with steel gates. Walking there, I felt as if I had entered a wasteland, the once-vital soul of which had been obliterated. There is just nothing more disheartening than walking down a once busy street that has become desolate of people and stores.

A vacancy on Madison Avenue in New York City.

There are many reasons for the plethora of vacancies, including the competition from online shopping, soaring rents, and many of the innumerable new office and residential buildings going up bringing new stores in their wake. Whatever the cause, one can see how the vacant storefronts with their ubiquitous “Retail for Rent signs” help undermine the aesthetics of the street, attracting refuse, graffiti and homeless people sleeping in doorways. And they also cause the erosion of communal feeling—distinctive stores add to a neighborhood’s identity (e.g., Fairway and Zabar’s on the Upper West Side).

Po, on Cornelia Street in New York City, is now vacant.

Several studies suggest that 20 percent of Manhattan’s storefronts lie vacant—concentrated in the borough’s most trafficked areas, where commercial rents have soared. So as the city booms, and the New York City market that has plenty of wealthy people who like to consume, it’s not only small stores but department stores like Lord and Taylor and Henri Bendel that close.

The solution to the problem of store vacancies is hard to achieve. In 2017 there were 200 empty storefronts on Broadway alone. In late October, the city council finally heard debate over a decades-stalled bill that activists have rallied around as the best chance to save small businesses from rising rents. At the city level, it’s the Small Business Jobs Survival Act that was first introduced in 1986 and modernized in 2008. The bill calls for commercial tenants in good standing to be given certain rights when renewing their leases. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has supported the bill, but so far, nothing has happened.

The bill’s advocates have had to struggle against the opposition of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York that believes the bill will cause more problems than it will solve. But a relatively new group, Stop REBNY Bullies, is helping to publicize the recently spreading phenomenon whereby more New York City candidates for every level of office are renouncing the real estate industry and its campaign contributions. There are a number of other proposed bills attempting to remedy the situation. A city councilman has offered a plan that would help small businesses fight back against landlords trying to evict them by connecting them to a lawyer free of charge.  And Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wants to penalize landlords who leave their shop fronts sitting empty—a vacancy tax.

Hopefully, some of these bills will pass and fewer vacant stores will exist. A vibrant city needs small stores.

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11 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Howie Lisnoff says:

    The West Village has suffered from gentrification since the 1960s. The 21st century saw that trend escalate with many of the small businesses that were well known disappearing. A hair stylist on Bleecker Street said that rent for a small space there was beyond astronomical. Remember the song “Bleecker Street” by Simon and Garfunkel? “Thirty dollars pays your rent…” Rents in the Village have been well beyond the ability to pay for a person earning a modest salary for a very long time. The area that gave rise to both the beatnik movement and the youth movement of the 1950s through the early 1970s is not recognizable any longer.

  2. Leonard Quart says:

    Yes, they have been high for a long time, But still many restaurants and small shops held on. The transformation into an upscale neighborhood is almost complete.

  3. Indifferent says:

    Just a thought…. why would we be printing something like this in a small town newspaper in Western Massachusetts. Being someone who lived in GB for 27 years and raised my children there I wonder if there are so many transplants from NYC that this is important? Good Grief there is so much interesting in the Berkshires we do not have to print about New York. SMH!

    1. Laura C says:

      Thinking the same thing….why do we care what goes on in NYC? We have our own problems with high rent and vacant store fronts.
      We have problems here in Berkshire County, that’s why this online newspaper is called The Berkshire Edge.
      Same with Chartock’s articles….always about New York State and his beef with Cuomo.

      1. Indifferent says:

        Thanks Laura I was feeling I was alone in this. LOVED GB for many years… would love to see it focus on the Berkshire area! Nice you care.

  4. Richard M Allen says:

    Real estate problems in NYC, similar to problems in San Francisco, Seattle and elsewhere, are caused by overregulation, which in turn is fueled by pressure put on elected officials by people who are convinced that they know what’s “right” and best for everyone. It is beyond me why many people believe those who build things are evilly forcing the rest of us to accept what they build, not simply responding to what the market dictates. Developers are in business to make money, and therefore build what people want, not what the developers want, and certainly not what the elite want. Anyone who tries to dictate what’s built (and often more importantly what’s not built) are hurting the people who would benefit from the development, people who are often poor and in need and unheard.

  5. Brian Tobin says:

    This article is irrelevant to our Berkshire community.

    1. Indifferent says:

      You are so so correct! Good for you for taking the time to speak up!

  6. DB says:

    Of course this is important! How narrow-minded?
    Not important until it happens to you. Short-sighted much? Without a vibrant NYC, many nearby counties, towns and small businesses will suffer. Small businesses will be replaced by chains, your choices will be few and mediocre. We are all together in this world. Better to care sooner than cry looking back. If you don’t have some control over the wealthy doing as they please with any or all the assets they can afford to buy, you will be gentrified right out of your seat! Thats only a small part of why you should care involving your own self interests. That doesn’t take into account even an ounce of compassion for the rest of those who are losing, or have already lost their seats.
    We are all in this together and it does matter how our neighbors are doing. What goes around, comes around.

    1. Leonard Quart says:

      Grateful for support. For a moment I thought writing about New York was like writing about an alien universe.

    2. Leonard Quart says:

      Grateful for your supportive comment. Landlord greed is not just an NYC problem. And store vacancies create holes in the social fabric be it the Village or Great Barrington.

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