By Anya Schiffrin
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer unveiled on Monday a new raft of proposals aimed at helping small businesses maintain their foothold on the Upper West Side, despite unrelenting pressure from landlords seeking to raise commercial rents.
Speaking at a press conference held at the The Halal Guys store on 95th and Amsterdam, Brewer proposed that the City Council implement a mandatory but non-binding negotiation period for landlords and tenants in which they could discuss rent increases. During this period, small businesses would be given the option of a one-year lease extension with a rent increase capped at 15%. “We want to ensure that small businesses are not blindsided,” Brewer said saying she hoped the proposal would help avert a “catastrophic small business interruption.”
Saying that street vending is often a “gateway” for small business owners, especially, immigrants, Brewer also proposed more support for small street vendors saying in a press release that “overhauling New York City’s antiquated policies governing street vending and lifting the 1980s-era cap on vending licenses will jump-start small business that could eventually transition to a store-front model as The Halal Guys have successfully done.” The Halal Guys began by selling food from a cart on 53rd street and Sixth Avenue and now have storefronts on both 14th and 95th streets.
Brewer also called for possible “condoization” of small businesses by helping them buy space as a commercial condominium, saying this could be a “win-win” for both landlords and tenants. “This model is already possible under current law,” her office noted in a written statement. Brewer proposed a pilot program saying that some spaces could be turned into condos. She cited the 504 loan program from the US Small Business Administration, which provides “growing businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing for major fixed assets such as land and buildings.” She noted that creating “low-intensity” commercial districts on quieter streets can take pressure off demand for real estate on high-traffic commercial streets.
Starting on May 6, Brewer will hold discussions around Manhattan to discuss her proposals with neighborhood business owners and residents. She also supports reform of the commercial rent tax, developing micro-credit options for small businesses and the development of apps which can provide small businesses with information about factors that could affect their businesses including subway delays and sidewalk and construction repairs.
The Upper West Side has faced an influx of chain stores, including banks and drugstores such as Duane Reade and CVS, and the decline of Mom-and-Pop stores has adversely affected the quality of life, Brewer said. She said that nine businesses on Broadway between 102nd and 103rd streets are now threatened by rent increases. “It’s rent, it’s always rent,” Brewer said, mentioning the closure of Grossingers bakery on 86th and Amsterdam, which was founded in 1946 and closed in 1991 and Big Nick’s diner on Broadway, which was founded in 1962 and shuttered in July, 2013.
When she was a council member for the Upper West Side, Brewer got a law passed limiting the size of storefronts on certain avenues to dissuade landlords from signing with chains.
Asked why some landlords evict small businesses but then keep their storefronts empty for years as happened with Movie Place at 237 West 105th street, Brewer said she had repeatedly tried to find out why this occurs. Landlords don’t get a tax deduction on the lost income she said, it is “simply that many times [the landlords] want to wait for the chains to come in.”
Brewer’s proposals are different from the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, originally introduced in 1986 by City Councilwoman Ruth Messinger, which called for arbitration of rent increases. That proposal has been stalled for some 30 years.
Other cities, such as Paris and Amsterdam, have managed to preserve a rich diversity of small businesses through a combination of social pressure, zoning regulations and rent control. Asked if she had studied regulations in place in other cities, Brewer said “I look at all solutions but I’ve not looked at Amsterdam or Paris. I have too much to do here.”
Research help provided by Matthew Fay.