By Barbara Adler
Retail is in a slump nationwide. In New York City, major shopping and tourist destinations are full of vacant shops. Broadway, once the grand, divided, green boulevard that stretches the length of Manhattan and beyond, has seen an unprecedented number of shop closings.
On the Upper West Side, our once thriving avenues, particularly Broadway, are full of vacancies. People love to blame “greedy” landlords, accusing them of “warehousing” commercial spaces, and holding out for above-market rates. Local politicians talk of imposing additional taxes on landlords who hold vacancies past a given time period, even though landlords do not reject reasonable leases, and are loathe to pay the hefty commercial taxes year after year on shops that have no incoming revenue.
Let’s be honest, we all know that online shopping is the major culprit, though no one likes to own up to it, and most of us are guilty of going to the Amazons on the internet before shopping locally.
I am not a landlord or shopkeeper, nor have I ever been. However, I was the founding director of one of NYC’s business improvement districts (BIDs) on the Upper West Side for the past 20 years. Several years ago, we built a small, sustainable streetscape block, turning it from a blighted stretch to an attractive go-to destination. We’ve never stopped getting kudos for this little project, and the reason is that we gave people what they were looking for: lush spaces to meet, sit and enjoy, with varied environmental enhancements and city-friendly amenities.
Of course, there are several areas in the city now where streets are closed to traffic for a stretch — cars replaced with seating and potted plants — improving noisy and congested areas enormously. This concept has been replicated all over the world, with fantastic results, creating oases for neighbors to meet and greet, put life back into shops, and experience what it really means to be part of a neighborhood.
We need help here on Broadway’s Upper West Side. I’ve been an Upper West-Sider for 59 years. I’ve seen the area change dramatically over those years. Rethinking how to make our shops buzz once again with activity is long overdue. I am not a city planner, regrettably, but I’d suggest that a group of professionals and knowledgeable locals work with city officials to create the ideal concept, the same way we did so many years ago when we created our little sustainable streetscape block. Hold a few workshops, get the ideas together, then work with DOT and/or Parks to make something really happen.
My own initial ideas include making a dedicated bike lane and bus lane on Broadway, and closing off a stretch to traffic; opening up the beautiful Broadway Malls, so this ribbon of green oasis can be enjoyed by more people; adding ample seating with tables, a greenmarket and other healthy items, passive entertainment such as chess, possibly food stalls, and other enticements to lure residents of the greater area to meet and mingle. Invite all retail and restaurants already in the area to play a major role. Hold neighborhood meet-and-greets in the newly created space with locals, politicians, and activists sitting down and discussing relevant topics. In other words, create a local vibe that becomes a magnet for all ages to enjoy.
In Europe, Australia and elsewhere throughout the world, areas such as this are plentiful. Neighborhoods support their thriving local shops and are environmentally conscious. Perhaps most importantly, people are friendly and respectful of one another, treating strangers like neighbors, and truly feeling part of a community.
Barbara Adler is a member of Community Board 7.