BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | The patient: mom-and-pop stores. The symptom: high rents. The prognosis: many of them are on life support. The course of treatment: a forum last week to take a look at some prescriptions.
Applause greeted state Senator Brad Hoylman before he even kicked off the event — a town hall on the city’s small business crisis — at the Fashion Institute of Technology, on W. 27th St. at Seventh Ave., on Nov. 9.
“We’re here to ask a few important questions,” Hoylman told the engaged and large crowd of 500 people. “What has happened to our beloved mom-and-pops? Why does it feel like more and more of our neighborhoods’ stalwarts are disappearing? What can we do to save the New York we know and love?”
In May, Hoylman released a report — “Bleaker on Bleecker: A Snapshot of High-Rent Blight in Greenwich Village and Chelsea” — which, he said, “examined the growing specter of vacant storefronts throughout Manhattan.”
“In case after case,” the state senator told the audience, “landlords pushed out local businesses, it’s perceived, in order to hold out for luxury retail or corporate chains capable of paying higher rents. The result is a glut of empty storefronts, chain stores, pharmacies and high-end national brands that lack local character.
“Bleecker St. is the cautionary tale of how high rents in the Village and Chelsea are pushing out longtime businesses.”
The report made some recommendations Hoylman brought up at the town hall, including creating a city registry of small businesses in operation for at least 30 years, zoning restrictions limiting the presence of national chain stores, and phasing out tax deductions for landlords with persistent commercial vacancies.
Another solution is eliminating the commercial rent tax on small businesses — which Hoylman called “an onerous and outdated burden” — which applies to many commercial tenants in Manhattan below 96th St. and north of Murray St. in Tribeca.
Borough President Gale Brewer, who spoke next, explained that businesses that pay $250,000 or more in rent annually are assessed this commercial rent tax.
Under a bill sponsored by Councilmember Dan Garodnick, merchants paying under $500,000 in rent would not have to pay the tax. It has yet to pass in the City Council, Brewer said.
Brewer and Councilmember Corey Johnson have sponsored legislation that would exempt grocery stores from the commercial rent tax.
“I’m afraid grocery stores in Manhattan might become endangered species — you know, like a bird or something,” Brewer said. “But we have to have grocery stores. I’m not wanting to have FreshDirect on every single corner. I want my grocery store.”
On Mon., Nov. 13, Brewer, Johnson and members of the National Supermarket Association rallied in support of their legislation to nix the tax for Manhattan supermarkets.
“Affordable supermarkets are lifelines for our communities,” Johnson said in a press release, adding the measure “would give our neighborhood supermarkets a fighting chance for survival.”
“Every neighborhood needs a supermarket and access to affordable food, but even the most successful supermarkets operate with slim profit margins,” Brewer said in the release. “Ending this tax can and will make a big difference for these essential businesses.”
In Chelsea, grocery stores have been shuttering, including, most recently, the Garden of Eden on W. 23rd St. in August.
At the town hall, Brewer said she was hopeful to pass the legislation at the same time as Garodnick’s bill, but noted, “All of this is challenging.”
Like Hoylman’s office, Brewer’s office surveyed empty storefronts. She said they walked from the bottom to the top of Broadway and found 188 vacancies.
“It’s outrageous,” she said.
Brewer is also proposing some kind of registry for the vacancies, and, perhaps, a penalty for property owners who keep storefronts empty for a certain amount of time.
“We don’t have a real sense of the problem because the city doesn’t collect data on empty storefronts,” Hoylman said later. “They say you can’t manage what you don’t measure. We’re not measuring how deep this impact is: We feel it in our hearts and souls, but the city isn’t registering in its database.”
At one point, Brewer came under fire from the audience for not pushing for the passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.
“Gale Brewer, you broke my heart,” one woman, a 40-year Chelsea resident, told her. “I voted for you, but you did not come out for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. Our city is on life support, and you have turned your back on us.”
Brewer helped write the S.B.J.S.A. when she worked for then-Councilmember Ruth Messinger and which has sat dormant since 1985. Brewer also sponsored the bill when she was a councilmember.
“I cannot wait after 25 years,” Brewer retorted, claiming there are “legal” problems with the S.B.J.S.A. “We’ve got to find something that will pass and that will save the small businesses.”
“Never mind a vote — that bill hasn’t had a hearing in the City Council since 2009,” another audience member charged, noting that a majority of the councilmembers are sponsors of the bill.
Hoylman then introduced the evening’s featured speaker, Jeremiah Moss, whom he met during the campaign to save Cafe Edison in Times Square. Moss chronicles “the disappearance of longtime businesses in Manhattan and across every borough,” through his “Vanishing New York” blog, and, now, a book with the same name, Hoylman said.
“I know we’re here tonight to talk about the small business crisis in the city, which is close to my heart, and we all know what it looks like,” Moss started off. He referred to mass evictions of shops and “overproliferation” of chain stores.
“It’s a city that is becoming homogenized,” he said. “It’s looking like everywhere else and it’s becoming, in some ways, quite deadened, and we all know the reason, right?”
Moss told the audience his presentation was “really about history” and was going to focus on the “two engines that drive today’s ‘hyper-gentrification,’ as I call it. And those two engines are racism and neoliberalism.”
In the late 19th, early 20th centuries, New York City experienced a population change, with new immigrants pouring in mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, and bohemians arriving from across America, along with early L.G.B.T.Q. people, Moss said.
“And this combination created what I really think of as the soul of New York,” he said. “It was colorful and queer and creative, pushing for social justice, the labor movement. It was not perfect but it was a more progressive place.”
City elites and the federal government pushed back, according to Moss, leading to deindustrialization, as well as the rezoning of the city. By the 1930s, the practice of redlining saw banks deny African Americans loans for homes and businesses, he said, and so “African Americans were also unable to access and accumulate wealth and these neighborhoods started to decline.”
People of color were placed in grim housing projects or pushed into already overcrowded parts of town, like Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant, and disinvestment and decline continued, Moss said.
By the mid-1970s, the city was in crisis and this was exploited by this new economic philosophy of neoliberalism, Moss said.
“ ‘Liberal’ here really means ‘to liberate the market,’ ” he said, “ ‘the liberation of banks.’ It’s radical free-market capitalism. It’s really a return to the Gilded Age of the 19th century before the progressive era.”
Moss drew a line to the administration of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, charging he “was the ultimate expression of the neoliberal philosophy in approach to governing the city.”
During the Bloomberg administration, 25,000 buildings were demolished and 40,000 new buildings went up — Moss scoffed they were “like glass boxes that all look same” — while 40 percent of the city was rezoned, he said.
“It may seem like I’ve gone way out there to talk about the small business crisis,” Moss said, “but it really is all connected.”
Next, Moss, Brewer, Hoylman and Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Zephyr Teachout versus Andrew Cuomo in 2014, discussed additional solutions, and fielded questions from the audience. Moss said he would really like to bring back commercial rent control, noting that the city had such a mechanism in place after World War II for almost 20 years.
Wu, who has written about “high-rent blight” in the West Village, said he was going to end on an optimistic note.
“I believe we can save this city,” he said. “I believe a lot of people really care about this. People are talking about this right now. The city has shown a resiliency. It has saved itself before and it can save it again.”