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Empty shops jolt New York City council into action

Just last week, a city Planning Department report questioned whether the closing of mum-and-pop stores is as widespread as council members fear. It found a 5 per cent vacancy rate in Pandey’s Jackson Heights, Queens, the lowest of 24 neighbourhoods studied. Still, it found vacancy rates as high as 20 per cent on Manhattan’s West 14th Street and in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“Although the study did identify neighbourhoods challenged by high vacancy rates, this condition was not universal,” the planning department said in the report. “Vacancy is concentrated only in certain neighbourhoods and is influenced by local and citywide market forces and spending patterns.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the storefront-database law will “provide us with a greater understanding of how and where vacancies change year over year, and a method to track the effectiveness of any government assistance programs or policy changes aimed towards solving this issue.”

Councillor Helen Rosenthal, who sponsored the bill, said her office conducted a 2017 survey of the Upper West Side and found a 14 per cent vacancy rate on Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, close to the planning department’s estimate.

City Council researchers reported that average Manhattan rents rose 44 per cent, to $156 per square foot, between 2006 and 2016. In Brooklyn, retail rents averaged at least $100 per square foot in 15 neighbourhoods as of 2017, up from three in 2007, according to CPEX, a commercial real estate company.

Steven Soutendijk, executive managing director at Cushman Wakefield, said that trend has reversed. Rents last year decreased 26 per cent on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue and 11 per cent on the Upper West Side, he said, citing Cushman data.

“Landlords still have to pay for maintenance, property tax, the mortgage,” Soutendijk said. “There’s almost no reason why any owner would want a space without income.”

Yet at 94th Street and Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 4000 square feet has sat empty since the last tenant, Blockbuster Video, went bankrupt in 2010. Doug Kleiman, of RIPCO Real Estate, which handles the property, declined to discuss it.

Meanwhile, at Sweetgreen, a fast-food salad chain, a steady stream of customers lined up at the counter. On the other side of Broadway, at Gotham Wine and Liquors, longtime manager Charles Serra said business, too, has been good in his 30 years at the shop. The key to retail success, he said, is to “offer customers what they want at a price they can afford”.

A few blocks south, at West Side Judaica, a seller of books and religious articles since 1934, there’s a storewide clearance sale, as it’s challenged by what a local news website reported was $24,000-a-month rent. A large window sign proclaims, “Everything Must Go!”

Bloomberg