Upper West Sider Tony Danza called into WNYC on Friday to speak to the mayor about all the mom and pops that have been closing in the neighborhood. And he mentioned one particular store that’s not a mom and pop — the Starbucks on 67th and Columbus that closed last year when the landlord hiked the rent to $140,550 a month.
The conversation became a back-and-forth about the disappearance of small shops. Escalating rents have forced many beloved shops out of business — Big Nick’s anyone? — and various proposals have been floated to slow the trend. But the mayor’s office has been resistant to commercial rent controls and a proposal called the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would give commercial tenants a right to get a lease renewal.
De Blasio’s reticence is evident on the call. Danza seems open to the idea of commercial rent control, but the mayor makes a more amorphous request when asked what should be done if a beloved business is forced to close: “I would urge the landlords to be less greedy.”
The transcript was provided by the mayor’s office (much of it is De Blasio giving a plug to Danza’s downtown cheese shop).
Brian Lehrer: Tony Danza is calling in, how about that.
Danza: Good morning, Brian. Good morning, Mr. Mayor.
Mayor: How you doing, Tony?
Question: I’m very well, sir. Thank you very much.
Mayor: Tony, I want to just commend you. I tried some of your smoked mozzarella.
Can I do an on-air endorsement?
Danza: That’s very nice.
Mayor: Tony Danza’s smoked mozzarella at his shop in Little Italy – go there right now, New York City. And I’m saying that – I’m a grandson of Neapolitan, so I know something about smoked mozzarella.
Danza: Listen, Mr. Mayor, that actually brings me to my question. I’d just like to know what your thoughts are about what I like to call the ‘neighborhood wasting disease.’ You know we have so many longtime establishments that have anchored neighborhoods in this city that are just being pushed out by exorbitant rents. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t know how you legislate that. But I’d just like to know what your thoughts are about going forward. Like, where I live on the West Side, on one block – and this is the truth, this is what’s really kind of startling, is that Starbucks had to leave because they couldn’t pay the rent.
Danza: So, that seems like some crossing of a Rubicon or something –
Mayor: You know you have a problem when Starbucks can’t afford the rent.
Danza: That’s what I’m saying. So, I just would like to know what your thoughts are going forward.
Mayor: It’s a great question. And, Tony, first of all, thank you for all you do for the city and everything you’ve done as an actor. But before I answer the question, why don’t you remind people what your store is and where it is.
Danza: It’s Alleva –
Lehrer: Say it again. The first part of that got clipped. Say it again.
Danza: Alleva. It’s on the corner of Grand and Mulberry in Little Italy. It’s celebrating it 125th anniversary in October. It was in the Alleva family for all these years and a few years ago a friend – a couple of friends of mine and I bought into it. We’ve been trying to run it and keep it alive because we end up feeling more like curators than store owners because there’s, you know, because of this thing that’s going on in the city.
Lehrer: This is not –
Mayor: Well, Tony, I think first of all. Your place is amazing and thank you for helping to save it –
Lehrer: This isn’t your Kellyanne Conway moment – plugging a product, right?
Mayor: I’m not plugging a product. I am talking about our patrimony as New Yorkers. This is a store that’s been there 120 years – you said 120 years, Tony, correct?
Danza: 125 – 1892.
Mayor: 1892. And it is part of our heritage. And I agree with Tony’s point. We’ve got to figure out every conceivable way to keep these particularly – these extraordinarily, meaningful stores that’s so much the fabric of our community.
Danza: You know, Mr. Mayor, not to interrupt but all the stores are meaningful. The smaller mom-and-pop places that I go get my paper in. It’s not there anymore. Just everything. It’s just –
Mayor: Yeah, but Tony, wait a minute. I want to answer your question. But I do – I want to make a little differentiation because I think – I always used to talk about, there was a place called Manganaro’s [inaudible] on Ninth Avenue that was there for also over 100 years that unfortunately closed a couple years ago. My grandfather went there when he first arrived in this country in 1905. I mean some places are –
Mayor: You know, really part of our persona as New Yorkers. I think they need special attention. The public sector has a tough challenge here because we are generally not in the position of subsidizing businesses and we don’t really have another great tool to do it. The first thing I want to say is, this is a case where some people could step up individually. You just did that. So, I want to commend you because there’s plenty of people in this town who have money. There’s plenty of people in this town who have celebrity who could step in and save some of these icons of New York City, and you did the right thing. I would urge more people to do it.
But this is a bigger point about how do we protect small business in general. What we did that we could do, Tony, first, reduce the fines that – and we still have more to do on that. When I was – back when I was public advocate we found that previous administration had a pattern of over-fining stores particularly immigrant stores, particularly outer borough stores are all sorts of examples. But those fines were really making it impossible for a lot of stores to keep going.
We’re steadily reducing the amount of fines. We want health and safety, of course. We want stores to play by the rules but we can achieve that a lot of times without financially burdening them. So, that’s point one.
Point two is we started legal assistance programs and small grant programs for older stores in particular to make sure that they’re not being kicked out because some landlord cheated them on their lease or they didn’t have a lawyer to protect their interests. And again sometimes a small grant can make a big difference for a store. So, we’re trying to innovate. I don’t have a big solution. Some people have talked about tax credits and things like that. The problem is when you compare that to all the other things we need to spend money on, it’s hard to put that over you know policing and schools and so many other challenges we have.
Lehrer: Tony, do you have a policy proposal to make regarding commercial rent?
Danza: I wish I did. I’m at my wit’s end. I mean, I don’t know what to say. I mean, you know, I’m particularly, because, you know, as soon as I walk out the building I see the empty stores, places I used to hang out in like the –
Lehrer: Do you want some commercial – and Tony, I’m going to have to move onto another caller in a minute but do you want some kind of commercial rent control which the administration and City Council have not gone for or something?
Danza: But at some point we many have to think about something like that. I don’t know how you’d do that in our society, you know? Tell landlords this is, you know, a cap. Or make some of a thing where the increases aren’t so large immediately. So, you know what happens, they come and throw you a big increase and then what do you do? You see what I’m saying? So, maybe if we could moderate that, maybe that could be –
Mayor: Tony said something very important, Brian. He said, “in our society.” Look, let’s be really cold here. It’s a free enterprise society that is not particularly warm and friendly to things like older stores, mom-and-pop stores. I would urge the landlords to be less greedy. If you’ve got a store that’s part of the fabric of a community, guess what, you could stop overcharging and let them survive, and you’re still going to be wealthy –
Lehrer: But urging them to be – like, you know as well as anybody that urging them to be less greedy isn’t going to change anything –
Mayor: I’m not saying I believe –
Lehrer: We have residential rent controls of various types in this city.
Mayor: Yeah, but you also know those were created in a different time. And the challenge on commercial rent control, it’s very legally dubious. Look, the entire – this not a news flash. The entire legal system is based on property rights and supporting a free enterprise system that needs in so many ways more regulation but our legal system isn’t built that way often.
So, I do think we should keep looking for a more stringent solution. I’d be very interested in one but I also want to – I want to lay this out exactly as what’s happening here. There’s a series of individual decisions and some stores are so sacred if you will, some are so important to this city, we should put pressure on those landlords to lay off and let them live. And by the way they add to the character of communities and if you want a capitalist argument, they add to the value therefore because they are part of what make communities special.
Danza: You’re preaching to the choir, believe me.
Lehrer: Tony, thank you for adding your voice.
Danza: Thank you very much, Brian. Have a great day. Take care, Mr. Mayor.
Mayor: Thank you, Tony. Take care, brother.
Inset image of Tony Danza via Wikipedia.