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Effort mounted to preserve character of SoHo

The intersection of Broome Street and West Broadway

The intersection of Broome Street and West Broadway in Soho in Manhattan is seen on Aug. 13, 2015. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang / Yeong-Ung Yang

Walking the streets of SoHo a decade ago, one would have found dozens of independent fashion, design and artisanal stores.

The lower Manhattan neighborhood offered one-of-a-kind boutiques and provided creative entrepreneurs with a playground for their talents.

The success had a cost, though: rising rents and the increasing presence of large chain stores, trends that have forced many mom-and-pops out of SoHo, or out of business entirely. But now small-business owners and community groups such as the newly formed SoHo Design District are teaming up to push the city to prevent further corporate erosion of the environment.

"We are a community, we are a neighborhood of design, and we've grown over the years," said Dahlia Latif, the district's founder. "No one's really standing up to these developers."

Latif, who has worked for several SoHo design shops, said the last decade has been hard for independent businesses, given the financial crisis and the higher rents that came with the real estate rebound.

To make matters worse, megastores such as Nike, Best Buy and Uniqlo have moved in, attracting a large swath of customers who might have otherwise visited small businesses in the area, said Bo Riccobono, vice president of SoHo Alliance.

"These [building] owners see the stores as financial objects. They are investment vehicles," said Riccobono, who is also the chairman of Community Board 2's SoHo Retail Task Force.

Historically, SoHo represented something more, he said.

"These design stores lit the neighborhood in a way that showed the city we're the place to be for artists again," he said, in the wake of the gritty '70s and '80s, when SoHo struggled along with a large portion of the city.

Some of the beloved independent stores that have recently closed found new life in other neighborhoods, such as Raul Carrasco furnishings and The New Traditionalists, both of which moved to Murray Hill. Others such as Fragments on Prince Street closed for good.

The persistent presence of empty storefronts in areas such as Greene Street affects the entire neighborhood by stifling the creative atmosphere it's known for, according to Latif.

"We have been this go-to place for product and education," she said. The shops "are a resource and a place for selling an innovative design."

Although current zoning prohibits commercial spaces from occupying more than 10,000 square feet, the city has approved special permits for the larger chains.

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents SoHo, said limiting the size of retail stores is one way to preserve neighborhood character.

"I am committed to keeping the neighborhood's unique identity alive for current and future generations of artists, designers and entrepreneurs," she said.

B. Jeff Madoff, a former fashion designer who teaches part time at Parson's School of Design, said the shift toward bigger retailers in SoHo is part of the "Darwinian cycle of business."

Still, customers tend to prefer a one-of-a-kind local product, he said.

"It's a great time to be an independent because the pendulum will swing. It always does," he said. "The people with the right ideas always find ways to get their product in the right eyes."

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