The city has drafted new zoning rules to address the single biggest complaint among Upper West Siders: that small stores keep disappearing while banks and drug stores seem to proliferate like mad. The rules, requested by Councilwoman Gale Brewer, limit the amount of sidewalk space used by businesses on Amsterdam Avenue, Columbus Avenue or Broadway from 72nd to 110th Streets.
These are the basic rules: On Columbus and Amsterdam, there must be at least two establishments per 50 feet of sidewalk frontage, and no one establishment can have more than 40 feet. Banks can only have 25 feet, and residential buildings can only have 15 feet. Stores must be at least 30 feet deep. On Broadway, there is no overall limit on the size of stores, but banks can only have 25 feet of frontage, and lobbies can have 25 feet. Exceptions include supermarkets, schools, houses of worship and lots that are less than 30 feet deep. (The zoning would affect Columbus Avenue only up to 86th Street.)
The fast proliferation of drug stores and banks in the neighborhood has many locals worried that the neighborhood’s character is under assault (there are 65 banks between West 54th and 96th Streets, according to Brewer). The neighborhood, once dominated by small shops, looks like a suburban strip mall in some spots — when you get your crafts at Michaels Stores, stock your fridge at Whole Foods, and walk by a Bank of America every three blocks, what’s the point of living in New York? You could just as well move to Connecticut and get the same stuff, and a lawn too. What’s more, landlords seem to be willing to let stores sit empty while they wait for the next big corporation to rent a space.
That said, some real estate pros say that changing zoning like this won’t work, and may simply attract smaller versions of the same stores — a similar rule tried on the Upper East Side enticed fast food restaurants and other basically depressing businesses to open up, they say.
However you may feel about the proposal, it’s at least an attempt to tackle a big issue for local residents. It’s kind of amazing that a city administration that seems to gravitate toward huge developments with large retail spaces and sports arenas is now apparently supporting a Jane-Jacobs-esque zoning rule (Jacobs was a prominent adherent of building neighborhoods with lots of small stores looking out onto the street).
Whether the new rules pass will likely depend on whether locals get behind them, or think they’re no good. If you care about this issue (pro or con), it’s worth going to a big meeting about it on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Goddard Riverside Community Center, 593 Columbus Avenue between West 88th and West 89th Street.
We’ve included the city’s proposal below; you can click on the bottom of the document to read it in full-screen mode in a new window, or see it on the city’s website here.
Photo by Avi.