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Zoning proposals for the UWS intended to help small businesses

Bruce Stark, owner of Beacon Paint & Hardware.

Bruce Stark, owner of Beacon Paint & Hardware. (Sheila Anne Feeney) Photo Credit: Bruce Stark, owner of Beacon Paint & Hardware. (Sheila Anne Feeney)

As deep-pocketed national chains increasingly dominate the streetscape, a city proposal to rezone parts of the Upper West Side may help bodegas and other independent stores keep up.

If the plan is approved, about 150 blocks of the UWS will be labeled "a special commercial district." The amount of space banks, residential lobbies and stores can take up on the "frontage" of the street in the newly designated area will be limited going forward.

Carve outs and exceptions abound, but the new proposals basically affect storefronts along sections of Broadway north of 73rd to 110th streets, Amsterdam on 73rd to 110th streets and Columbus between 72nd and 87th streets. Plans include for a minimum number of stores per block on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues and restrict the amount of space that newly arriving banks and new lobbies in residential buildings can take up at street level. (Grocery stores - already endangered - are exempted from the limitations.). There are also "transparency" requirements - at least 50% of new street level businesses has to be windowed.

Should the proposal be adopted by Community Board 7 (which is discussing it Wednesday night at the Goddard Riverside Community Center), and then pass the City Council, existing businesses will not be affected.

The proposal is in response to community input that "we have too many banks and drug stores" and not enough neighborhood services, said Gale Brewer, who represents the area in the City Council. A city survey revealed that 29 banks are already in the area covered by the changes, Brewer added.

The plan is also intended to maintain "a varied presence of offerings in the community" and a vibrant pedestrian experience, added Mel Wymore, former chair of CB7 and a candidate for City Council. "Under the hierarchy of uses, if a bank vacates, a bank can go back in, but if a grocery store vacates, a bank can't go in," Wymore explained.

Supporters hope that the proposed requirements will eliminate the incentive for landlords to evict smaller businesses and "bundle" multiple store fronts at street level to appeal to large chain stores and banks, which can pay much higher rents.

Michael Slattery, senior vice-president for the Real Estate Board of New York derided the proposal as "a solution without a problem." Putting additional restrictions on what landlords can do with their property "at a time the economy is struggling to recover will dampen retail tenancy and delay the opening of stores," he said.

The mom and pop stores that Brewer is so intent on helping "have been slowly declining due to factors that have nothing to do with street frontage," and more to do with succession problems, increased competition and escalating costs and taxes, Slattery said. When a similar plan was previously tried on a portion of the East Side, he continued, the small spaces wound up being occupied by "Burger Kings and electronics stores" - hardly the retail tenants civic leaders intended for the spaces.

Debra Kravet, owner of Apthorp Cleaners, countered that any anti-bundling measure "would help a lot."

Kravet lost her space in the Apthorp building in 2007 after 25 years. Her old storefront "sat vacant for 40 months," before a Tumi store moved in, combining the space she left with that of a neighboring business, she continued. Kravat eventually found a new location at 78th and Amsterdam, opening March 30, 2009. "We were so excited to come back to a block," she said, and then dismayed to see the stores to the south of them- a children's clothing store, a diner, an eyeglass emporium, a shoemaker and a locksmith - close up, making her feel unsafe at night. The landlord, she said, "took five stores and bundled them up. Now one big store - Sugar and Plumm- is going to move in."

"Little stores help make the neighborhood," said Kravet, who also lives in the area. "But the landlords will put you out of business by just not renewing your lease."

Kravet said she'd also like to see commercial rent control and landlords who keep previously used retail spaces deliberately vacant subject to fines, but acknowledged such sanctions were unlikely.

Brewer explained the quilt of requirements "was the best we could come up with" to help embattled independents. "I would have preferred to get a tax abatement for the small stores, but it turns out we can only do that through the state (government)," she said. "It was hard to get even this!" she exclaimed.

It's a great start, pronounced Bruce Stark, a neighborhood resident and the owner of the 112-year-old Beacon Paint and Hardware at 77th and Amsterdam, who lauded the proposed changes. "Everything helps! There are a lot of good recommendations in there!" Even the transparency requirements will help to keep the area safe, he added, by allowing passersby to see into stores.

Stark hopes the zoning change will also result in reined-in commercial rents. If the national retailers are barred from occupying certain spaces on street level, he reasoned, rents "will have to come down."

Most small business people said they welcomed the proposed restrictions, but Sammy Koustantakopoulos, owner of The Viand diner at 74th and Broadway, was one business owner who wasn't thrilled.

"I like it the way it is," he said. "When they make a special zone, taxes go up," griped Koustantakopoulos.

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