Councilwoman Gale Brewer testified on Wednesday before the city Planning Commission in favor of a rezoning plan that would force landlords to keep Upper West Side storefronts small, limiting the neighborhood’s big-box stores. Brewer said she had letters of support from 76 local businesses and she presented a petition with nearly 800 signatures.

We have a rundown of the rezoning plan here, but 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.)

Opponents of the plan have said that local businesses will suffer because rents in the area could rise and small businesses that wanted to expand their storefronts would be forbidden from doing so. But Brewer said that the rezoning is vital to keep small businesses from being evicted to make way for corporations willing to pay higher rents for larger spaces.

In her testimony, Brewer painted a bleak picture of the status quo: “Block after block has been transformed from a thriving, well-established multi-store environment into a deadening, monolithic frontage of “one store plus bank” per block…The proposals to limit bank frontage, establish street wall transparency, constrain new and expanding storefronts to 40 feet and lobby widths to 15 feet along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues will do much to encourage retail diversity.”

After the planning commission votes, the rezoning will go before the entire City Council. The mayor is expected to support the plan.

We’ve pasted Brewer’s entire statement below. To read a letter opposing the rezoning, see the statement from Columbus Avenue BID Executive Director Barbara Adler in this article.

My name is Gale A. Brewer, and I represent the 6th City Council District and the residents of the upper West Side and northern Clinton – West 54th Street to West 96th Street. Thank you for the opportunity to testify regarding the Department of City Planning’s upper West Side Retail Streets Initiative.

I want to thank the staff of the Department of City Planning for making themselves and their expertise available to the community during the development of this important planning initiative. In particular I want to commend Carolyn Grossman and Barry Dinerstein of the CPC staff for their close work with my office, and Laura Smith who has clearly and patiently presented the plan at a series of Community Board, Chamber and many other meetings.
I also want to note the work of the land use staff of the Office of the Manhattan Borough President, and the support of BP Stringer in expressing his approval of the initiative and the many constructive recommendations made by his office that improved the proposed zoning.

For their support, I am indebted to my colleagues, Council Member Inez Dickens and Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represent the northern part of Community Board 7 where the commercial streetscape is of great concern to residents. In that area, leaders Bob Botfeld and Cynthia Doty, and others, have worked tirelessly – TIRELESSLY – advocating to protect the character of their neighborhood and make local businesses successful.
I want to thank Community Board 7 – especially former Chair Mel Wymore, current Chair Mark Diller, and District Manager Penny Ryan – for their detailed review and open debate on the merits of the proposal. Their 37-0 approval speaks volumes about the need for this initiative and the community’s overwhelming support.

Support is also strong among my constituents. Old-time West Siders as well as young professionals have written and e-mailed, and stopped me on the street, to say how badly the neighborhood needs the protections contained in the proposal. They want a local, community-centered commercial environment that serves their needs, just as it has always done. And what store owners believe makes them successful is the diversity of many different stores on a block, and many reasons for shoppers to come there. This proposed zoning is both simple and flexible, and it would still enable businesses to expand. People do not visit and move to the upper West Side for the block-long stores and banks, and this proposal will ensure the look and feel of the upper West Side for the future.

Special conditions are contributing to the loss of our local stores on the upper West Side. Unlike the upper East Side, where every avenue except 5th is open to commercial development, the West Side in my District has Central Park West, West End Avenue, and Riverside Drive closed to commercial activity. This leaves only Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues as commercial corridors, and has accelerated the development pressure to turn these avenues into streets dominated by banks and national store chains.

This initiative to constrain the loss of small retail on the upper West Side has been in preparation for a long time. My efforts began almost 30 years ago when I worked as Chief of Staff under Council Member Ruth Messinger. She recognized that what we like to call the “mom and pops” were the bedrock of our neighborhood’s business identity, and that they were essential to a sense of community among upper West Side residents. My own office has worked continuously over the past 11 years to help city agencies better understand the needs of small business owners. We have met with them often, collaborated with local Business Improvement Districts on their issues, and I have sponsored City Council legislation and held committee hearings on ways to provide relief to small store owners. Most recently Jesse Bodine of our office and I went door to door with an NYPD officer to many businesses to explain the laws regarding employees who deliver on bicycles, and we help the owners of all businesses with a myriad of problems involving city agencies.

In 2007, I co-sponsored an oversight hearing on providing relief to “mom and pop” stores through better government services and improved technology, and as a result the Council enacted several measures to assist small businesses. I also reached out to owners and managers of property with small business tenants; explored tax breaks for building owners who rent to owner-operated businesses but learned any such proposal has to go through the State; sought credit enhancement programs to assist with large security deposits; and I have sought to streamline the maze of city regulations and the application processes that owners face when opening a small business. I advocated for the New Business Acceleration Team and have called on their expertise several times for businesses in our area.

In 2007, I wrote to the City Planning Commission to request policy changes that would give priority to “mom and pop” stores and would restrict the consolidation of several store frontages into larger, box-type spaces that significantly alter the look and character of the neighborhood. In 2009, I wrote to the NYC Department of Finance to find out if tax incentives played a part in the prevalence of long-term storefront vacancies through which landlords leave empty entire blocks of stores for years at a time. (No abatements…). In October 2010, I co-sponsored a Retail Round Table to discuss issues facing the retail community along Broadway from 79th to 89th Streets, and I participated in a similar forum, which was very well attended, sponsored by Borough President Stringer a few years earlier.

The upper West Side has long had a distinct small business environment that draws shoppers from around the region while enjoying strong support from local residents. In recent years this happy co-existence has eroded. There has been a sharp increase in large banking spaces and national chain stores that take street frontages of up to 100 feet, displacing many small merchants. Block after block has been transformed from a thriving, well-established multi-store environment into a deadening, monolithic frontage of “one store plus bank” per block. This reduction in diversity, visual interest, and variety has damaged the character of our neighborhood. It has also reduced trade for the surviving small retail sector and limited the access of local shoppers to a variety of essential goods and services.

The emptying and demolishment of block after block contributes to an atmosphere of continual disruption and disorientation. In order to attract yet another large banking space or national chain at premium rents, building owners routinely drive out all the small businesses on their property, leaving entire blocks of stores vacant and dark for months or years while awaiting a top offer. Among many examples, seven long-term viable businesses providing basic goods and services were driven out this way on Amsterdam Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets, leaving an entire block dark and run-down for a year and counting. Another entire block of nearly twenty businesses was recently demolished on Broadway between 75th and 76th Streets, to be replaced by but one or two banks or mega-stores.

The proliferation of banks has had a profoundly detrimental effect on small businesses and the vibrancy of the streetscape. There are currently over 60 banks in my Council district, nearly one per block in some stretches. These banks conventionally monopolize all the retail space in a single block or half-block. In spaces once occupied by bustling stores providing distinctive goods to locals and visitors alike, the banks offer only dead window space and large neon advertising billboards. Nearly all banks are closed on Sundays and in the evening, leaving their windows dark and sterile, and creating long, empty stretches in the urban landscape.

In order to preserve the streetscape and character of the upper West Side, we must re-establish balance between large and small retail establishments. This balance is the lifeblood of the community’s treasured commercial prosperity. The proposed initiative will significantly help to address the problems outlined above. The proposals to limit bank frontage, establish street wall transparency, constrain new and expanding storefronts to 40 feet and lobby widths to 15 feet along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues will do much to encourage retail diversity. The plan leaves room for a flexible approach to the needs of neighborhood businesses, allows for expansion of successful proprietors, and will help preserve “mom and pop” stores that characterize the history and vitality of the neighborhood.

This initiative is the result of extensive research on the part of City Planning into the factors that contribute to the unique character of the upper West Side, including land use and residents’ concerns over the changing commercial environment. City Planning has been fully and sensitively engaged with the community, meeting with the Community Board, Business Improvement Districts, Chambers of Commerce, and neighborhood groups to obtain a wide range of ideas and comment. In this respect, the proposal as outlined is uniquely configured to address the needs of the upper West Side, and therefore not applicable to other city neighborhoods as some have suggested. And to reiterate, this proposal will NOT affect existing stores, only the frontages of new or expanding businesses; it does NOT restrict stores to certain owners, or prevent chain stores; it does not limit the size of stores, only the ground floor frontages; and it does not limit how many businesses of a certain type may operate in the neighborhood. What the proposed regulations do is help ensure that over time the general multi-store character of Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues will be maintained, while promoting a more varied and active retail environment on Broadway.

Again, I commend Amanda Burden and the Department of City Planning for their leadership on this issue. The Department of City Planning has designed a comprehensive and workable plan for preservation and healthy development of the distinct life of the upper West Side, and for all the reasons cited above I wholeheartedly urge the Commission to approve the upper West Side Retail Streets Initiative.

Images via rezoning plan and Gale Brewer’s twitter account.

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