The City’s plan to limit the size of Upper West Side storefronts won approval from Community Board 7′s Land Use Committee this past week. Although the full Board has yet to weigh in, the proposed zoning amendment is picking up speed.
The zoning proposal would mandate that there be at least two businesses every 50 feet of sidewalk frontage on Columbus Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue with no one business having more than 40 feet of frontage. Banks and residential building lobbies will have even more smaller frontage allotments on both Avenues as well as on Broadway. The desired effect is that small independent stores will be spared from eviction and sky rocketing rents due to limited demand for their space. Big Box stores, large Duane Reades and banks will have to build on the second floor or below ground. The extinction of small retailers on the Upper West Side has been a hot button issue for at least a couple of decades and was even the subject of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan film “You’ve Got Mail” almost 15 years ago.
The City in its justification for the amendment states “Although the historical character along all three avenues remains generally intact and the area remains a strong model for commercial streets citywide, businesses entering the neighborhood today are able to assemble multiple storefronts and carve out a single, larger space along the primary commercial street. These trends have threatened the historic local retail character on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues that has greatly contributed to the area’s popularity and success.”
Big Box chains and banks will have to be creative in the use of their retail spaces if the amendment becomes law. Given the increasingly affluent population on the UWS, they will probably find ways to do so. Nothing in the proposed amendment is designed to limit the number of small franchisees like Subway, frozen yogurt chains or other fast food restaurants. Those are the type of businesses that flourished on East 86th Street in the 1980s after a similar zoning restriction went into effect there. Ultimately that law was deemed a failure and repealed.
The Upper West Side is not the only New York City neighborhood concerned about the retail mix along its streets. Community Board 3 in the Lower East Side recently sent a letter to property owners asking that the landlords rent “to a diverse mix of commercial renters, not just to nightlife businesses, banks and chain stores.” The letter states in part that “among our chief concerns are maintaining economic diversity and serving local retail needs. Our community has a high demand for more daytime retail business such as grocers, butchers, shoe stores, stationery stores and other businesses that serve our local residents. Research and public input have indicated that our current condition of too many bars and eating/drinking businesses works against promoting a diverse economy”
Maybe the powers that be on the Lower East Side will wait to see how the Upper West Side plan plays itself out before proposing a similar amendment. Regardless, they are making clear that they have the tools right now to accomplish part of their goal by limiting the number of liquor licenses in their neighborhood. Even with that being the case, given the high rents that landlords have become used to, it will be interesting to see if the result in either neighborhood will be a return to small independently owned stores.