By Sabina Mollot
Two Sundays ago, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, with the help of nearly three dozen volunteers, walked along the length of Broadway in Manhattan, taking note of every vacant storefront they passed. The exercise was for a study on retail blight conducted by Brewer’s office, the results of which were not pretty.
In fact, said Brewer, who strolled a strip from the 60s to the 70s, “It was worse than I thought.”
Along her way, she observed five empty storefronts in a two block radius. “I don’t know how long they’ve been empty,” she said.
She chose Broadway as the street to monitor due to it being a part of so many different neighborhoods. Additionally, from what she’s seen the problem doesn’t appear to be more prolific in some neighborhoods than others.
“In Manhattan, it’s everywhere,” she said.
Now, having done her legwork, Brewer said the next step is to figure out the reasons for the closure besides the obvious, that “the rent is too damn high.” Additionally, from what she’s seen, the problem has gotten worse in the borough over the past 5-10 years.
Interestingly, the observations on the ground come on the heels of a report that Manhattan is dealing with a slowdown in the retail market, part of a nationwide trend.
According to figures from the Real Estate Board of New York’s Spring 2017 Manhattan Retail Report, asking rents for available ground floor retail spaces fell in 14 of Manhattan’s top 17 shopping corridors, compared with the same time last year.
“The overall decline in Manhattan average asking rents is attributable to natural correction from a robust market,” said REBNY President John Banks. He also cited “national retail conditions” as well as e-commerce as factors.
As for how to help mom-and-pops in a time of retail blight, Brewer has been actively supporting the Commercial Rent Tax reform bill being pushed by Council Members Dan Garodnick and Helen Rosenthal, which aims to spare about 3,400 businesses from the tax. At this time, only retailers in Manhattan from Chambers to 96th Street must pay the tax which Garodnick said amounts to half of one month’s rent for the impacted businesses. However, Brewer’s come under some fire from small business activists for not being a supporter of the Small Business Jobs and Survival Act. The SBJSA aims to get small businesses an automatic 10-year lease extender, but Brewer has said it will never pass.
“I’ve been working on this issue since 1985,” said Brewer. “It is a hard issue.”
Her own legislation aimed at making it mandatory for a landlord to negotiate with a tenant when a lease is up, and if need be go into mediation, and even arbitration — though the arbitration would be nonbinding — went nowhere after being introduced over two years ago.
So instead, Brewer said she wanted to turn her attention to empty storefronts, which have a negative impact on surrounding businesses.