By Megan Zerez
UWS Save Our Stores, a grassroots organization aimed at reducing the number of long-term vacant storefronts on the Upper West Side, held its first town hall meeting last Thursday night at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. More than 150 people came to hear elected officials present plans to address retail vacancy rates.
Officials in attendance included City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Robert Jackson, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, and State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal.
Just over 10% of retail space on the Upper West Side is vacant, according to a report from the comptroller’s office, presented at the meeting. But UWS Save Our Stores President Beth Krieger said the organization’s own survey of storefronts on Broadway between 67th and 104th Streets indicated a 20% retail vacancy rate. Krieger also said that the closure of grocery stores is a major concern on the Upper West Side. “We’ve lost three supermarkets: Gristedes, West Side Market and Food Emporium.”
To help supermarkets retain their leases, Borough President Gale Brewer said she has proposed a bill that would eliminate the commercial rent tax for some grocery stores. The exemption would only apply to “affordable” grocers. Chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s would not be exempt.
Currently, the effective commercial rent tax is 3.9% and applies to all businesses in Manhattan south of 96th Street with annual rents above $250,000.
Council member Helen Rosenthal said the city relies on this tax to fund essential services, but she has proposed modifications to it so as not to overburden small business owners. She called for raising the rent exemption cap from $250,000 to $1 million. To remain revenue neutral, she has also proposed an increased tax rate for larger retailers.
Stringer said that another solution to help small businesses stay in place would be to relax certain city sanitation and safety regulations in order to relieve the pressure of “red tape.”
Jackson urged attendees to support the recently resurrected Small Business Job Survival Act. Brewer, who backed the bill, said that it would give small businesses a conduit to better negotiate lease renewals. The bill has failed to pass several times. In January, the New York Law Review criticized it for effectively aiding corporate businesses, as none of the protections in the bill are specific to smaller retailers.
While residential rents continue to climb, a Real Estate Board of New York report, cited at the meeting, stated that retail rents are decreasing. Brewer criticized the report, saying any decrease is nominal. The electeds also voiced support for a vacancy tax for commercial landlords, but later clashed over how strict regulations ought to be.
Time constraints limited the number of audience questions, but attendees said the event was still worthwhile.
“This was a well-publicized meeting,” said Karen Goodheart, a retiree and Upper West Side resident. “I’m glad I attended.”
Goodheart said that before the meeting, she hadn’t heard about UWS Save Our Stores, which was founded last January, but the star-studded guest list caught her attention. She said she plans to attend future meetings.
“This was all new to me,” Goodheart said. “So it was very informative. And it’s very overwhelming.”
Still, it could be worse. According to the data, while the Upper West Side does have higher retail vacancy rates when compared to the rest of the city, it’s not the hardest hit area. Of the neighborhoods covered in the comptroller’s report, Crown Heights and Ocean Hill in Brooklyn are near-tied for the highest share of vacant storefronts, each at almost 19%.