UWS Retail Zoning Limits gets nod from Community Board Subcommittee

The City’s plan to limit retail zoning and 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 accelerating. 

The retail zoning proposal would mandate at least two businesses for every 50 feet of sidewalk frontage on Columbus Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue. No one business has more than 40 feet of frontage. Banks and residential building lobbies will have smaller frontage allotments on both Avenues and Broadway. The desired effect is that small independent stores will be spared from eviction and skyrocketing rents due to limited demand for their space. Big Box stores, large Duane Reade, and banks must 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 few 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 retail zoning 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 can 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, greatly contributing to the area’s popularity and success.”

Big Box chains and banks must use their retail spaces creatively 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 businesses flourished on East 86th Street in the 1980s after a similar retail zoning restriction was enacted. Ultimately that law has been deemed a failure and repealed.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, “among our chief concerns are maintaining economic diversity and serving local retail needs. Our community has a high demand for more daytime retail businesses such as grocers, butchers, shoe stores, stationery stores, and other businesses that serve our 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 retail zoning amendment. Regardless, they are making clear they have the right tools 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.

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