Documenting the Death of New York’s Mom and Pops
NEW YORK—Shuttered storefronts, with their dirty glass and aura of abandonment, are a blight to vibrant city streets. They appear in a New York minute and age ungracefully over months, or sometimes years.
Dramatic rent hikes are forcing many small-business owners out of the market.
Da’Vinci Shoes on West Eighth Street is closing at the end of this month, after the landlord more than doubled the rent, according to a staff member.
Tekserve was one of the latest victims. The “original Apple store,” as co-founder Dick Demenus called it, was priced out of its home on 23rd Street in August. Changes in the competitive landscape were also a factor.
Rent hikes forced Rebel Rebel Records on Bleecker Street to close in June after 28 years, according to a post on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, a blog documenting the loss of small businesses in New York City. The fashion chain store next door, Scotch & Soda, expanded into the space.
In December 2014, Cafe Edison’s lease renewal was denied and the Times Square icon closed after 34 years of providing a handy haven for theatergoers and locals. Friedman’s is opening a restaurant in the space after major renovations.
But it’s the stagnant, empty storefronts that residents rail against most.
“It’s a problem that everybody knows exists,” said Justin Levinson, founder of Vacant New York, an interactive map site indicating empty storefronts in Manhattan. The impetus? “Jeremiah’s blog was the lightning rod. The comment sections are full of people saying, ‘My neighborhood is a mess, it’s empty, it’s not a home. … It doesn’t feel like a living, breathing community.'”
Levinson, a freelance computer programmer, launched Vacant New York three weeks ago after years of seeing his favorite stores disappear and not being replaced by anything.
“A lot of it was really curiosity, too,” he said. “How bad is it really?”
So far, he has mapped about 1,000 empty storefronts on his site, but said it’s far from the full picture. He used data from the city and real estate brokers, but many storefronts are leased directly by the owner or a broker with no online presence, he said.
“In the East Village-ish area, I found another 70 percent [on top of] what I already had” by just walking around the area, he said. The vacancy counts in areas where leases tend to be handled by larger brokers, such as Times Square and SoHo, should be “pretty accurate,” he said.
Commercial real estate listing website CityFeet.com lists around 60 retail spaces currently for lease in SoHo—about 30 city blocks defined by the boundaries of Canal Street up to West Houston and Sixth Avenue across to Crosby Street.
Since Levinson’s site went live, residents have submitted more than 100 corrections and new vacancies throughout Manhattan to update on the map.
He plans to talk to local politicians in the coming weeks and figure out how to capitalize on the momentum his website has gathered.
“It’s a really ugly problem. There’s not a simple, silver bullet solution for this,” he said. “Trying to come up with something that’s going to work across the city for every neighborhood is really hard and politically challenging, so I think people throw their hands up and say there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The site’s mission is to bring attention to the plight of mom and pop businesses, and encourage state and city governments to protect small businesses and cultural institutions.
Landlords sometimes keep storefronts empty in hopes of landing a higher-paying tenant such as a chain store, Levinson said. And for landlords with multiple properties, an empty store may be helpful for accounting purposes, by allowing them to write off losses. But, Levinson said, introducing penalties for landlords could also be tricky. “If I were the landlord, and had to take less money, I wouldn’t want to do that either.
“My big hope for this project was to get people discussing some potential solutions,” Levinson said. “And if it led to some sort of experiment or policy change, I’d be ecstatic.”
Levinson’s Ideas for Discussion
- Vacancy tax for landlords
- Increase in tenants’ rights through guaranteed leases
- Binding arbitration over rent increases (as outlined in the Small Business Survival Act)
- Tax breaks to small businesses to help ease the pain of high rents
- Streamlined registration and a reduction of regulatory hoops for certain types of retail tenants
- Cultural landmarking
- Caps on rent increases
- Limitations on chain retail presence
- Experimenting with solutions in an area such as Park Slope or East Village