By Maria Rocha-Buschel
City agencies currently have no way of measuring the rate of storefront vacancies in the city, representatives have admitted.
The representatives, who were from the Department of Small Business Services, discussed the matter at a City Council hearing earlier this month led by Council Member Dan Garodnick, chair of the Economic Development Committee. At the hearing, Garodnick had been pressing the agency on its apparent lack of strategies to come up with solutions to address retail blight.
“This hearing is about the economic impact of vacant storefronts and what I heard in the testimony was mostly a variety of things SBS has done to help businesses over time, but I didn’t really hear any urgency about the problem,” Garodnick said.
Rachel Van Tosh, deputy commissioner of business services for SBS, and Blaise Backer, deputy commissioner of neighborhood development for SBS, both testified at the hearing that the agency doesn’t have its own procedures for assessing the number of vacancies in the city but instead relies on partnerships with various nonprofits and other community groups that track vacancies independently.
Van Tosh noted SBS has found that tracking storefront vacancies and determining the economic impact of the vacancies is “complex” and could not give a reason for why the agency has been unable to determine the prevalent cause.
“There have been many reports and studies into what causes vacancies but the key takeaway is that the underlying causes for vacancies are complex and vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and property to property,” she said. “It can be affected by e-commerce, neighborhood divestment in small businesses (and other factors).”
Representatives from the Department of Finance (DOF) were available at the meeting as well and also were unable to provide specifics on the number of vacant storefronts in the city. DOF director of intergovernmental affairs Sheelah Feinberg said that part of the issue is defining the criteria for what is “truly vacant,” since it’s possible that a seemingly-empty storefront has a lease or a storefront might appear empty for other reasons when it hasn’t actually gone out of business.
Garodnick also questioned why SBS was unable to answer some of the basic questions about the specifics on storefront vacancies when the City Council report released the day of the hearing, “Planning for Retail Diversity,” had similar information to what SBS representatives said they hadn’t been able to gather, such as statistics by zip code of changes in retailers with revenues less than $1 million from 2002 to 2012.
Van Tosh noted during her testimony that SBS has been working on strategies to help small owners stay in business and prevent vacancies in the first place, such as legal assistance against commercial tenant harassment and commercial lease workshops for owners.
“We’ve had our local partners looking at this in a local way,” Backer added. “Community groups have relationships with property owners and tenants, and we have used them for localized solutions to address that issue.”
Garodnick emphasized that city agencies should begin tracking this problem by coming up with a way to measure vacancies themselves.
“It sounds like the city is leaning heavily on local partners to deliver this information but having our own ability to measure that is also very important,” he said.
In response, without getting into details, the representatives from SBS told the Councilmembers at the hearing that they would work on a timetable for coming up with a way to estimate at least the prevalent cause for why storefronts are becoming vacant.