The NYC real estate market continues to squeeze both renters and buyers, yet vacant storefronts still plague even so-called "trendy" neighborhoods. There are several frustrating reasons for all of this conspicuous urban blight, which is one of the reasons why freelance developer Justin Levinson has assembled a comprehensive map of all the vacancies around Manhattan, which you can find below.
"I felt that it was important to bundle up the scattered data into a coherent narrative that people could look at and understand easily if we wanted to have any kind of change," he said.
Levinson, a 34-year-old East Village resident, told us he was inspired to start the project, Vacant New York, after living in NYC for a few years and watching his favorite regular stores and bars disappear one by one: "It's always been the case [that places disappear], but more and more they weren't being replaced," he said. "A few big ones stuck out because I saw them on my walk to work all the time, including the Barnes & Noble on 8th Street, and the post office-turned-HSBC on 14th and 6th."
As he outlines on the website, the project is intended to "to provide some background around commercial vacancies and use a map to give some insight into the extent of the issue, ideally doubling as a tool for community groups and policymakers to identify areas for intervention."
As for what any possible intervention could look like, he outlined a few ideas for us: "There's a lot of potential solutions: vacancy taxes, tenant subsidies, rent regulations, and more, but they've all got flaws— there's no one right answer," Levinson noted. "It's very easy to point fingers and build a narrative of greedy landlords or simple business failures, without taking into account that most people aren't purposefully being evil; they're operating in a system with certain rules and incentives."
Of course, it goes without saying that terrible things happen regardless of whether anybody intends to be "evil" or "greedy." And this sort of retail blight is increasingly pervasive beyond Manhattan. Here's what one property owner in Williamsburg said to a concerned resident last year, when asked if he would ever rent out his long-vacant storefront:
"A few blocks north it's really heating up. In 18 months this block'll heat up too." Until then, blight! (See also https://t.co/pydrjV1atK)
— John Del Signore (@johndelsignore) November 25, 2015
"There's externalities beyond these storefronts: both an impact on the neighborhood and tremendous opportunity cost involved in leaving storefronts empty, so it's worth some experimentation to see if we can better utilize this space," he added. "I'd like to get to a point, using tools like this map, where citizens and government can look at the situation and say 'this isn't working, what changes can we try?'"