The city has amended its plan to limit the size of Upper West Side storefronts so it addresses concerns brought by property owners that it’s too restrictive. The Department of City Planning changed its original plan to “maintain a diversity of retail services on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues and also offer flexibility to businesses and property owners,” the department told us. It presented the changes this week to the Planning Commission, which is expected to vote on the new plan by May 9.
The plan originally stated that businesses on Columbus and Amsterdam can take up no more than 40 feet of sidewalk space (and 2 adjacent ones can’t be more than 50 feet together). Banks could only have 25 feet, and residential buildings could only have 15 feet. On Broadway, there was no overall limit on the size of stores, but banks could only have 25 feet of frontage, and lobbies could have 25 feet. The idea was to stop landlords from kicking small retailers (“mom-and-pop shops”) out, combining their spaces and renting them to larger big-box retailers. (if you’re not up to speed, you can read our full coverage here, with a basic overview here.)
The majority of the changes the city made this week appear to be efforts to appease landlords worried that the deal could squash their property values. It also addresses the concern that successful local businesses that want to expand wouldn’t be allowed to under the original plan. But while it’s more business-friendly, it doesn’t address some concerns from local community members who said at public hearings that they wanted it to be even more restrictive, particularly on making landlords subdivide vacant spaces.
Here’s how the city described the amendments in an email to us:
1) The most significant proposed modification responds to concerns expressed by small businesses that the proposed waiver rules would make it overly complicated for existing businesses to make limited expansions beyond 40’. The Department proposed to create a new faster “certification process” that would allow existing businesses to apply for an expanded frontage up to 60’ using simple criteria and eliminating environmental review.
2) The Department also recommended a grandfathering of large storefronts so that they could remain permanently at their current sizes. The text previously required stores to meet new rules if vacant for more than 2 years.
3) The Department also recommended allowing projects due to complete expansions within 6 months to continue unaffected by the new rules.
4) The Department also recommended expanding allowed lobby sizes from 15’ to 25’ along Columbus and Amsterdam to provide additional flexibility.
5) Other changes included the addition of a community board referral for waivers, and miscellaneous clarifications.
The Real Estate Board of New York (which opposed the original plan) posted a generally positive piece about the changes on its website, and we also asked City Council candidate Mel Wymore, who has worked closely on the plan, for his reaction. “The modifications proposed will enable successful local businesses to expand while still fostering a diverse mix of retail offerings that activate our street scape and enrich neighborhood character.” Likewise, Councilwoman Gale Brewer : “I am optimistic that the proposed modifications to the initiative discussed at the City Planning Commission review session on Monday, April 23 2012 will significantly resolve a number of the valid concerns to date while continuing to offer protection for the existing retail environment.”
Mel explained the changes in more detail:
1. Quick certification process for business expansion
In response to concerns voiced by the Community Board, the BID, and various businesses, DCP made it possible for existing businesses (that have been in business for at least 1 year) to expand without having to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement. This modification eliminates the need for the Chair of City Planning to certify expansions in landmarked buildings or buildings in landmarked districts, but includes a referral to Community Boards.
How it works: a business that wishes to expand up to 60′ would show that it is unable to expand upstairs, downstairs, or around the back, AND demonstrate that there is not more than one establishment greater than 40′ on the same block, across the street, or on the adjacent block fronts. DCP estimates that approximately one half of the blocks in the zoning area would be eligible for an expanded store under this framework, and is working on a checklist of requirements that the business would have to demonstrate. Note that this certification would not be available to banks.
2. Permanent grandfathering
DCP elected to exempt establishments that do not already conform to the proposed regulations, of which there are 37, and expansions already in progress (and scheduled for completion within 6 months of passage). This modification addresses concerns from the Coop and Condo Board and landmarked buildings that felt the requirement to subdivide after a period of vacancy would be too onerous.
3. Maximum lobby widths
DCP increased the maximum lobby width from 15 ft. to 25 ft in response to the Borough President’s concerns that new developments should be afforded more flexibility in designing new buildings.
The modifications have not yet been posted because they are still being tweaked, but they will likely not stray significantly from what was presented on Monday at the City Planning Commission.
City Council candidate Helen Rosenthal, however, said the changes don’t seem to achieve the overall goal of the plan: “The goal is to retain independently-owned businesses on the UWS. It’s not clear that these modifications will move us in that direction.”
Once the planning commission votes, the proposal then moves on to the City Council. The mayor is expected to approve the plan.
If you haven’t already, take our poll below on whether the city should approve the rezoning. If you like or dislike the changes, leave a comment to let your neighbors know!