February 2, 2012
Across New York City, the proliferation of chain stores, banks and pharmacies in the past decade or so has robbed many neighborhoods of the quirky one-of-a-kind shops that give those places their distinct personalities and where customers can form a relationship with their shopkeepers.
Now the city is proposing to erect a fire wall in one neighborhood — the Upper West Side — that may discourage chain stores and preserve the neighborhood’s commercial character and its vibrant street life. Supporters believe, and opponents fear, that it could serve as a blueprint for other neighborhoods.
The proposal would amend the neighborhood’s zoning to limit the ground-floor width of all new stores to 40 feet on two major commercial thoroughfares — Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues — and banks to 25 feet on those two avenues, and on Broadway as well. The 40-foot number was chosen because most are already narrower than that, and 25 feet was regarded by officials as a “workable width” for ground-floor banks.
The district covered by the proposal — roughly 72nd to 110th Streets, though on Columbus the new zoning would apply no farther north than 87th Street — already has 29 banks, 24 of them on Broadway. The Department of City Planning did not tally chain retailers, but dozens have cropped up on all three roads. Chains have so transformed Broadway that the new regulation aims to stop only banks there.
Many West Siders — and a neighborhood councilwoman, Gale A. Brewer — have complained that these national businesses gobble up what were once clusters of smaller stores. “Stores are the soul of the neighborhood,” Councilwoman Brewer said. “Small pharmacies, shoe stores, they mean everything to us.”
One Duane Reade on Amsterdam Avenue, between 78th and 79th Streets, takes up more than three-fourths of the block; a Chase Bank on Broadway between 89th and 90th takes up half a block. One side of Amsterdam between 76th and 77th consists almost entirely of an Equinox gym, Modell’s Sporting Goods, Crumbs cupcakes and Giggle baby products.
“Each block has a Duane Reade,” said Kenneth Yoo, owner of Paper House, a party supplies store on Amsterdam near 73rd. The large stores make it hard for small businesses, he said: “All the stuff we have, Duane Reade has, too — and cheaper.”
Susanna Brock, 27, a Harvard graduate who teaches at a private school in the area, lamented how hard it was to find “interesting boutique stores” in which to browse. “If I come out during one of my breaks, there’s no store to go into,” she said. “What am I going to do, look at toothpaste at Duane Reade?”
Mel Wymore, who until recently was chairman of a local community board on the West Side, has argued that big banks and large pharmacies have a “deadening” impact on street life and eat up sidewalk space.
“When a bank closes at night, it becomes dead space,” he said. “A retail establishment, on the other hand, is interesting to look at. Even when it’s closed, it engages the pedestrian.”
But critics, like the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents landlords, say the proposal is misguided and chains and large drugstores are proliferating because people like them. Stores like Duane Reade and CVS, said Steven Spinola, the board’s president, have become the new five-and-dimes, places where customers can find everything, like light bulbs, shoelaces and a gallon of milk, in one spot.
“If CVS is such a terrible store for the area,” he said, “then why are they getting a tremendous number of customers?”
In a way, the proposal is intended to encourage more stores like Stoopher &Boots on Amsterdam Avenue, Stephanie Goldstein’s idiosyncratic but tidy shop of ladybug-shaped night lights, dinosaurs made of socks and other hand-crafted what-nots. Scout, her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, is a regular there; he would probably not be found in a chain.
Such singular shops, as well as locksmiths, florists, picture framers and others stores catering to everyday needs, once bred prolifically on the West Side, helping the neighborhood keep its loose-limbed character. But they have been disappearing, replaced by banks and chain retailers like Banana Republic and Victoria’s Secret. The neighborhood has lost the Maxilla and Mandible store, a three-decade-old fixture that specialized in fossils and skulls, and Ottomanelli Brothers butcher shop, which offered meats not found in supermarkets.
Planning officials insist they are not trying to block chains. They could still be on Amsterdam or Columbus Avenues, but they would have to expand onto the second floor or deeper within a building’s core. Food stores like Trader Joe’s would be exempt from the new zoning.
City officials point out that limits on the ground-floor frontage of banks have in recent years been tried successfully, if on a smaller scale, on 125th Street, and more than 40 years ago on Fifth Avenue, though in neither case was a 40-foot limit imposed on frontage.
Ms. Goldstein said she worried that limiting frontage would still allow national businesses to occupy the smaller spaces. “It’s not protecting the kindof store,” she said. “It’s protecting the size of the store.”
Another skeptic is Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban planning at New York University, who said the West Side, once an enclave of professionals in relatively low-paying intellectual trades, was drawing chain stores because it has different newcomers, many of them affluent. It has also seen the building of tall condominiums and co-ops with footprints ideal for large stores. “The West Side is no longer a hotbed of liberals, artists, poets and activists,” he said. “It has entered the 21st century with Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Century 21.”
Arguing that the zoning is addressing a nonexistent problem, Mr. Spinola pointed out that fewer than 45 of the 900 stores in the district that would be affected are now wider than 40 feet. More crucial to the fate of small stores, he said, are rising commercial taxes.
Mr. Wymore, who is running for a City Council seat, said the proposal was no panacea because merchants were also being pushed out by rising rents, partly a function of the West Side’s wealthier population and partly the result of landlords’ preferring deeper-pocketed retailers.
Rachaele Raynoff, a spokeswoman for the planning department, insisted that the agency had no intention of copying the proposal elsewhere. “We believe that neighborhoods are very specific,” she said. “There’s no cookie cutter, one size fits all.”
The new zoning resolution, which is under an advisory evaluation by the neighborhood community board, must be approved by the planning department and the Council (the Council typically defers to a member’s wishes on neighborhood issues).
The support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration is already assured, since the planning department would not pursue the zoning plan without the blessing of City Hall.
Interviews suggested that smaller merchants feel endangered. “It’s a sense of pride to own your own business, to have independence, but you’re always on edge,” said Elias Makriyianis, who for 25 years has operated Amaryllis Florist on Amsterdam Avenue near 73rd.
Many people worry that with every small store’s closing, the experience of shopping begins to lose its relish. Kate Kaminski, 34, an assistant at Gary Tracy, an optometrist on Amsterdam, said the trinkets at chain stores were often mass produced, while those at hole-in-the-wall stores were often original or offbeat.
“When they close,” she said, “you lose beautiful quality products.”