The famously vibrant parts of NYC life — concerts, dive bars, cheap restaurants — attracted Justin Levinson from an early age, when he would travel into Manhattan from Peekskill for a taste.
So much so that he became a resident, and has now lived here for about a decade. But recently, it began to dawn on him that many of those early draws have disappeared — the familiar if personal venues, shops and cluttered storefronts jammed up against one another that altogether create the backdrop of NYC’s streetscape.
Pearl River Mart, the famed Chinese department store? Shuttered.
Pearl Paint, an art store on Canal Street, too. “That one really hurt,” Levinson said.
The piecemeal disappearance of institutions he had come to know was discomfiting, but hard to quantify. To visualize what was happening, Levinson, a computer programmer, spent six months creating an interactive map charting Manhattan’s vacant, for-lease storefronts, which he released last week.
High-rent blight is still blight
The phenomenon of “high-rent blight” — where small and even large businesses are driven out of their locations by dizzyingly climbing rental prices — has been documented in blogs like Vanishing New York and the New Yorker, which in 2015 described the strange case of the swanky West Village, still home to jazz clubs and upscale restaurants, and also high-rent blight.
But it’s difficult to quantify, because there’s no single database for commercial vacancies..
To locate vacant, for-lease storefronts, Levinson combed brokers’ official websites. In the high-rent areas that make up much of Manhattan, large brokers are responsible for a large percentage of properties. Apart from them, Levinson says there is a “long tail” of smaller brokers and properties that are for rent by owner.
Levinson says he focused on Manhattan so he could drill down accurately on those large brokers and their more-complete websites, supplementing anything he couldn’t collect online by personally pounding the pavement and looking for “For Lease” or “For Rent” signs, particularly thoroughly in the East Village and Lower East Side.
This isn’t a perfect count — storefronts owned by individuals may have fallen through the cracks, for example, but the results are still jolting.
The map of Manhattan, a snapshot in time, shows approximately 1,000 red blobs denoting vacancy, especially in areas like SoHo and Lower Manhattan.
Filling the space
Levinson laments the impact that these vacancies have on neighborhoods: windows that get tagged and papered over. Litter collects in doorways. “No one takes care of the street.”
The vacancies can disrupt longstanding local patterns. Levinson references the Vanishing New York post that highlighted the now-shuttered Chinese restaurant Charlie Mom, once a gathering place for elderly residents.
The post notes that the store closed not because of changing consumption patterns but spiraling rent.
High rent might be the most immediate problem, but it’s a complex one. Commercial leases are lengthy, for example, meaning that it makes sense for landlords to wait until they can fill their vacant spots with high-paying tenants.
Michael Slattery, senior vice president at the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry trade association, questioned the use of a vacancy map in depicting “the nuanced retail conditions of a particular street.”
“Vacant space viewed in isolation from other factors — such as the neighborhood, existing retail tenants, the location of the space, whether the remainder of the building is commercial or residential and how a particular tenant would enhance the value of rest of the building — is an unreliable indicator of the economic health of the retail market,” Slattery said in a statement.
But even if the vacancies are not a contagion, they are disturbing and surprising in the aggregate. It’s hard to argue that the most efficient use for a thousand storefront properties in the middle of New York City is for them to be unused.
“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘Awesome I’m going to go screw some poor people and tear apart communities,’” Levinson says.
Instead, the “incentives in the system” pay to keep some storefronts empty, regardless of the irrationality.
“I don’t blame any particular person,” he says. It’s “just the way it pans out.”
Visualizing the situation might be the first step in addressing the vacancies.