UWS SOS battles “commercial desert”

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A new grassroots organization is looking to solve the problem of empty storefronts on the UWS


  • Poster from the SOS Facebook page. Photos: Kevin Kinner

With vacancies on the rise throughout the city, a group of women on the Upper West Side recently decided to take action and formed a grassroots organization with hopes of addressing this issue.

In February, five women — Beth Krieger, Ann Meyerson, Susan Eley, Debbie Spero and Stephanie Pinto — launched UWS Save Our Stores (UWS SOS) on Facebook. Its mission is to stop the epidemic of empty storefronts and revitalize commercial life in their neighborhood.

“This is a problem that the whole city has been trying to deal with,” Krieger said.

The group met once in February and held its second meeting on March 6. Last week UWS SOS established five task forces; legislative action, commercial revitalization, communications/media, vacant storefront research and community outreach. Before its next meeting in April, members are doing outreach for more volunteers and each task force will come up with proposals for action.

The problem is acute: citing a City Council report from 2017, the New York Post wrote in January that “Manhattan's overall vacancy rates doubled from 2.1 to 4.2 percent between 2012 and 2017.”

Some recent closures on the UWS include La Vela, 373 Amsterdam Avenue; Harriet's Kitchen, 502 Amsterdam Avenue; Coffeeberry, 618 Amsterdam Avenue; Chocolate Works, 641 Amsterdam Avenue; Seasons, 661 Amsterdam Avenue; and Big Bang Burger, 426 Amsterdam Avenue.

“I've been very distressed [by] what I call the commercial desert of the Upper West Side,” said Meyerson, who is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. “Why is the place looking like we are in a depression?”

Meyerson, 70, said she has witnessed poor economic times in the 70s, 80s, 90s and during the recession in the 2000s, but has never seen such a rash of vacancies.

In January, she posted her displeasure with the current situation on Nextdoor, a social media site for specific neighborhoods. Many people quickly replied, echoing her sentiments.

“There must be something deeply systemic,” Meyerson remarked. “We know that it's not just our neighborhood.”

Double-digit vacancy rates

Meyerson hopes that with a new Democratic state legislature, things can finally get rolling. She said that while high rent, property taxes and minimum wage have forced places to close, many landlords have chosen to keep stores empty for numerous years.

With Mayor Bill de Blasio lobbying for the state to implement a vacancy tax on landlords, Meyerson feels this would be a step in the right direction. According to the Post, “a number of recent studies have found retail corridors in prosperous Manhattan neighborhoods are struggling with double-digit vacancy rates, from 27 percent on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side to 20 percent on a stretch of Broadway in Soho. Five percent or less is generally considered 'healthy.'”

Meyerson explained that some of the commercial vacancies in the UWS can be attributed to the recent luxury developments that have caused commercial rent to increase to keep up with the residential costs.

She emphasized that it isn't just restaurants that are disappearing, but supermarkets, wine shops, hardware stores and more.

Elected officials have taken notice. In 2017, Council member Helen Rosenthal did a study about the issue titled, “Small Business Health Report.”

In the summer of 2017, her staff canvassed Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, along with numerous cross-streets. Their key findings were: 88 percent of the 1,332 storefronts surveyed were active businesses; 12 percent of storefronts were unoccupied; Broadway had the largest number of empty storefronts; an estimated 67 percent of the street-level businesses along Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus are independently owned small businesses; 24 percent are national chains; and 9 percent are local chains of some sort.

Shopping habits on the UWS

“It has been very challenging,” said Sarah Crean, communications director for Rosenthal. “It's a city-wide issue. Council districts throughout the city and the mayor's office haven't been able to address this the way people would like. There have been ongoing discussions for years about city rent control.”

Crean noted that the way people shop today is different than 15 or 20 years ago, but that is no excuse for landlords keeping storefronts empty. It is a daunting task to protect small businesses when landlords control rent, she said.

One person who has seen the changing landscape of the UWS is Janice Horowitz, a longtime resident and member of UWS SOS. Horowitz told the West Side Spirit that this is not the community she has grown to know and love.

She said she used to be able to walk a few blocks and get almost everything she needs on her way home from work, and now, that is simply not the case.

Horowitz acknowledged that companies like Amazon and Fresh Direct have taken away business, but many people, including the high number of seniors on the UWS, still prefer to shop in person. People should not have to walk half a mile to shop, she said.

“There isn't the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker anymore,” she said.

According to Horowitz, the greed of landlords has gotten in the way of a well-functioning city. She said that landlords don't seem to mind that stores are empty, while in actuality they are hurting the economy and the community.

“Landlords have gotten carried away and some have gotten this fantasy that better rent is the better way,” Horowitz said.

To volunteer for UWS SOS: goo.gl/forms/L1CWyscekLIDVSLy1

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