Council O.K.’s retail-vacancy tracking bill

A recent retail vacancy on Bleecker St. in the West Village. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

BY GABE HERMAN | Retail vacancies remain an ongoing issue throughout much of the city, including in Downtown Manhattan, in areas like the East Village and West Village, such as along Bleecker St. Now the City Council has passed a bill that will create a database of retail spaces and their vacancy status, and which requires merchants to register storefronts with the city as part of the process.

The bill to create the vacancy database, which would be the first of its kind in the country, was introduced this year on March 13 by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, whose district includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, the West Village and Midtown West.

The three local politicians said the bill would help address the crisis of empty storefronts.

“You can’t fix a problem when you can’t even begin to measure it,” Brewer said after the bill passed. “This database will be a boost for business owners looking for possible places to rent, those facing lease negotiations, and countless other possible services, which is why I’m proud the Council voted to pass this bill today.”

“Our ‘Storefront Tracker’ legislation will require citywide tracking of commercial storefront and second-floor spaces for the first time,” Rosenthal said, “providing comprehensive data on commercial strips at risk, the location of every vacant storefront and more. This essential information will be the basis for solutions which help keep small businesses in our communities.”

Two retail vacancies along Bleecker St. (Photo by Gabe Herman)

Speaker Johnson joined Rosenthal in stressing the importance of small businesses to the local economy.

“Passing legislation to address and help mom-and-pop store owners is vital,” Johnson said after the bill passed, “and today we are approving several proposals to help businesses by providing much-needed support and information. Currently, the city lacks the data necessary to make informed policy decisions and the storefront database bill will tackle this issue head on.”

Some local small-business advocates, however, were less optimistic about the bill’s impact on the vacancy problem.

Kirsten Theodos, co-founder of TakeBackNYC, which advocates for mom-and-pop shops, said she has no problem with collecting information about retail vacancies.

“But it is perplexing why a bill counting vacant storefronts was fast-tracked and passed in just four short months,” she said, “while the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a bill that would actually stop the closings by addressing the unfair lease-renewal process, had a hearing eight months ago and since then there has been zero movement toward a vote.”

Theodos was also critical of how Speaker Johnson has been handling the vacancy issue.

“It is very sad that the speaker had the time to withdraw his name from the S.B.J.S.A., a bill he proclaimed in 2018 he was a ‘proud sponsor’ of, be a co-sponsor of this recent bill — that will not stop the crisis of good businesses from closing — and quietly reshuffle the deck on the Small Business Committee; but he does not have the time or political will to pass progressive legislation like the S.B.J.S.A.”

Similarly, Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, said that while the database will be useful, “it is not by itself nearly sufficient to address the challenges facing small store owners in New York City right now.

“The mayor has done virtually nothing about this so far,” Berman continued. “The City Council has taken up some useful legislation, but not nearly enough has been done. Much more needs to be done to address the rampant retail vacancies and price gouging affecting too many storeowners and retail corridors in our city.”