LEONARD QUART: Combatting New York City’s store vacancies
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.
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).
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.