By Gus Saltonstall
Broadway has long been the commercial heart of the Upper West Side, but a key stretch of the iconic avenue today has more storefront vacancies than it does blocks, according to a recent count by West Side Rag.
West Side Rag found 85 ground-floor storefronts standing empty on Broadway between West 59th and 110th Streets during the last week of August.
It means there are more than one-and-a-half vacancies per block – 1.6 to be exact – for the 51-block stretch of Broadway on the Upper West Side.
“There is no good reason for so many storefronts to sit empty and unused in the heart of the Upper West Side, one of the most visited neighborhoods throughout our city,” New York City Councilmember Shaun Abreu, whose district starts around 96th Street, told West Side Rag.
Abreu and other Upper West Side elected officials have worked to mitigate the number of vacant storefronts in the neighborhood and across the city for years, with then Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spearheading the fight in 2019 with former neighborhood representative Helen Rosenthal, who served as the Upper West Side New York City Councilmember from 2014 through the end of 2021.
New York City politicians pushed to create a database that went live in 2021 to track the number of vacant storefronts in the city, which is supposed to show the lease status and other details of every ground-floor and second-floor commercial space in the five boroughs.
The vacant storefront database has had delays in updating its tallies, though, and more sensitive information such as the rent price has not been included.
Past counts of Upper West Side ground-floor business vacancies show that the blight unsurprisingly worsened during the COVID pandemic.
Along with the pandemic-related closures, a report by the Department of City Planning in 2019 pointed to rising rents, the ever-growing popularity of online shopping, lofty real-estate taxes, the increase of storefront space created during a construction boom from 2010 to 2018, and long-term economic disinvestment in certain neighborhoods within the five boroughs as reasons for the added vacancies.
85 vacancies on 51 Upper West Side blocks
Map of Upper West Side Broadway vacancies, click icons to get exact address. Created by Gus Saltonstall.
While previous studies have looked at different sections of Broadway, a look back suggests the problem is getting worse, not better. Earlier counts carried out by Patch and Brewer’s office show that the number of empty storefronts on Broadway from 68th to 98th went from 30 in 2017, to 47 vacancies in April of 2019, to 56 vacancies in May of 2022.
Similarly, Helen Rosenthal’s office in 2017 identified 57 vacancies on Broadway from West 62nd to 109th Streets, meaning that the recent 85 found by the West Side Rag from 59th to 110th streets show a major increase in the neighborhood over the six-year span.
Shuttered businesses are not just bad news for owners and their customers. The construction that follows as storefronts change hands can be a huge headache for neighboring stores, especially when scaffolding is involved.
A Blue Mercury retailer on Broadway between West 92nd and 93rd Streets has its entrance almost completely blocked off by a web-like collection of metal bars and poles.
The store sits directly next to the recently shuttered Perfecto Pizza and Telio.
“It’s definitely affecting business,” the store’s manager, who asked not to be named but did not specify why, told the West Side Rag about the chain reaction of the nearby closings. “We get less foot traffic because people can’t tell where the entrance is, and the mimosa crowd is also gone with the next-door restaurant of 30-plus years closing and the scaffolding going up.”
Efforts to solve the storefront vacancy issue
A variety of proposals have been introduced over the years in an effort to limit the number of vacant storefronts throughout New York City.
That effort has included elected officials pushing legislation that would create penalties for business owners that allowed their storefronts to sit vacant for extended amounts of time, and “mom-and-pop” rezonings, which limit the size of new storefronts in the hopes of protecting smaller businesses.
“To emerge from the pandemic stronger than before, we must make it easier for small businesses, restaurants, and stores to open up here and breathe new life into our communities,” Abreu told the West Side Rag.
Abreu, who worked as a tenant’s right lawyer before running for office, along with Brewer, are co-sponsors of a 2022 bill that would temporarily suspend commercial rent taxes. If the bill was successfully passed, it would provide relief for small-business owners by suspending the payment for three years.
Nonprofit organizations also look to be a part of the solution.
Both Brewer and Rosenthal have mentioned that stretches of the Upper West Side that didn’t have Business Improvement Districts (BID) seemed to struggle more to fill their storefronts.
A Business Improvement District is a geographical area where local stakeholders oversee and fund the maintenance, improvement, and promotion of their commercial district. It allows for certain areas to receive more funding and also have decisions be made by the residents who live throughout those blocks.
The elected officials pointed toward the work BIDs were able to do in partnership with the nonprofit Art on the Ave on Columbus Avenue in the neighborhood by using empty storefronts to display art and welcome in more new businesses.
The creation of more ground-floor residential space or reimagining the storefronts as childcare centers or community meeting places have been other solutions offered for commercial vacancies.
Spotlights of the Upper West Side 2023 count
Despite the worsening situation, there are signs of hope, with a number of Upper West Side stores slated to welcome new tenants in the near future.
The DSW at the corner of West 79th Street and Broadway will open as a P.C. Richard & Son. The shuttered Victoria’s Secret on the corner of West 84th Street and Broadway will welcome customers soon as Panera Bread. And a long string of adjacent, long-vacant storefronts on West 69th and Broadway is on its way to becoming a Morton Williams supermarket.
The Marshall’s on the corner of West 78th and Broadway is recently empty, a Duane Reade between West 69th and 70th streets sits with no signage and a look of abandonment, and the shuttered Metro Theater still anchors West 100th Street and Broadway.
- 59th to 69th streets: 12
- 70th to 79th streets: 16
- 80th to 89th streets: 18
- 90th to 99th: 25
- 100th to 110th streets: 14
The southernmost section of the Upper West Side posting the least number of vacancies has to do with stretches of no commercial activity. Larger buildings such as Lincoln Center, Lincoln Plaza, Dante Park and the Columbus Circle-area take up large portions of the ten-block span.
Meanwhile, the 90th to 99th Street stretch has four different blocks with more than three vacancies on them, nearly double the average for the entirety of the Upper West Side.
The Broadway block between 92nd and 93rd streets has two vacancies on the west side of Broadway, and three vacancies on the east. The once bustling street has seen the closure of two restaurants, a Starbucks, a dry cleaner, and a vitamin shop in recent years.
Here are some of the other vacancy hot spots in the community.
- Four vacancies on Broadway between West 75th and 76th streets (both sides of the avenue.)
- Three vacancies on the west side of Broadway between West 76th and 77th streets.
- Three vacancies on the east side of Broadway between West 82nd and 83rd streets.
- Four vacancies between Broadway and West 93rd and 94th streets (both sides of the avenue.)
- Four vacancies between Broadway and West 98th to 99th streets (both sides of the avenue).
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