The roughly three dozen city employees, small business owners, and advocates who testified at Friday's lengthy City Council hearing on small business preservation agreed that the displacement of independent retailers is a major problem—but they seemed unable to come to any consensus on a solution.
Among the proposed policy initiatives were zoning restrictions for chain stores, property tax abatements for small businesses, penalties for landlords who let storefronts sit vacant for months at a time, and incentives for those who don't.
"It feels as though a great tsunami is coming towards us: big real estate dominating the city," Patricia Dorfman of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce said during her testimony. "You're talking about life rafts and water wings when a tsunami is coming."
A lack of cohesion between the Council and the Department of City Planning suggests that none of these proposals will manifest into policy any time soon.
"We don't have one policy in place that's really helpful," Council Member Brad Lander said following testimony from two City Planning officials. "Everything we've talked about, you've been really dismissive of."
Lander, who is a proponent of implementing zoning restrictions similar to those in San Francisco which limit the expansion of "formula retail" (i.e., chain store) developments, called out the Planning department's hesitancy to implement new zoning strategies and their claim that zoning has little impact on what kind of retailer occupies a space.
"From our perspective, a coffee shop is a coffee shop regardless of who owns it," City Planning's lead retail planner Laura Smith told the Council. "Zoning doesn't regulate ownership. If a community needs a laundromat or wants a coffee shop, we're not in a position to say, 'Okay, but it needs to be owned by this person, not that person.'"
Planners and legislators were similarly unable to agree on what to do about the rising number of vacant storefronts across the city, many of which sit vacant for years at a time. City Planning staffer Barry Dinerstein said the department doesn't "have good data on where this is happening in the city." (Incidentally, freelance developer Justin Levinson recently mapped this data, visualizing vacancies in Manhattan.) Dinerstein also told the Council that vacancies are often the result of "mismanagement" rather than landlords "gaming the system and hoping to charge higher rents."
But council members and small business advocates argued that vacant storefronts are the result of landlords "warehousing" their properties in order to lease them out to the highest bidder—often drugstores and banks. This has, for example, been observed for years now on a stretch of Southside Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue:
"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
"Whether landlords are warehousing properties or they're just not paying attention to them, the number of empty spaces is quite striking," Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a small business advocacy group, told Gothamist.
Even if the Council and City Planning were to agree on zoning ordinances or how to handle warehousing, many who attended the hearing worried neither party addressed the root of the issue. On Wednesday, Take Back NYC called the upcoming hearing a "sham" that ignored the real problem plaguing small business owners: retail tenants' lack of leverage and negotiating power against landlords.
According to Take Back NYC, the city loses approximately 1,000 small businesses per month, often as the result of severe rent hikes. Instead of arguing over zoning and incentives, Take Back NYC's Kirsten Theodos told Gothamist, the Council should have been discussing the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a comprehensive bill that would protect small business owners by establishing criteria for negotiations between landlords and retail tenants.
Although the SBJSA has been supported by 27 council members, the bill has yet to go before a committee hearing. If it were to pass, the SBJSA would give commercial tenants the right to a 10-year lease and equal negotiation terms with their landlord, effectively barring landlords from gouging their tenants.
"Retail zoning and landlord incentives don't address high-rent, short-term leases or the extortion of immigrant business owners," Theodos said. "So why is this piece of legislation being excluded from the discussion? It makes you think the hearing was a little disingenuous."