While the city has kept Walmart at bay—for now—banks and/or drugstores continue to consume two, three, and sometimes four or five consecutive storefronts in many parts of the city. The Upper West Side has been particularly hard hit because most of its side streets are residential. The neighborhood primarily relies on the north/south corridors of Broadway, Amsterdam, and Columbus for its shopping needs. After hearing citywide complaints about the problem, City Planning has begun to address the issue through the West Side Neighborhood Retail Streets Initiative.
It’s very, very rare for presenters to receive appreciative applause at a community board land use meeting, but that’s what happened last night when City Planning’s Laura Smith presented the plan to the CB7 Land Use Committee. Smith’s team began studying the problem in nine similarly vital neighborhoods back in 2008, before zeroing in on the West Side where the problem is most acute. “The goal is to preserve and restore multi-store frontages,” she told the crowd. “Banks deaden the streetscape.”
The new zoning divides the area into two retail districts: one district for Broadway and another for Amsterdam and Columbus, both areas roughly stretch from 72nd to 110th Street. There are 23 banks in the district. Smith said that because Broadway was built in another time period that celebrated the larger retail establishments it shouldn’t be held to the same small-scale standards as Amsterdam and Columbus.
For Amsterdam and Columbus the “enhanced commercial district” is known as EC2. There, the average storefront ranges from 10 to 17 feet wide. The proposal would require two storefronts per 50-foot lot with no store exceeding 40 feet and no depth less than 30’. What tenants and owners do beyond the 30-foot depth limit is up to them. Smith used an example of a Chase bank at 96th Street that uses a shallow 25-foot wide lobby at street level for bank machines, but the small space provides access to a much larger bank floor on the second floor. Banks would face the most stringent regulations with any new branches moving in to the area limited to 25 feet wide. Residential lobbies would be limited to 15 feet. Along Broadway the redistricting would be called EC3. The 25-foot wide bank limit would apply to Broadway as well, but the residential lobbies would be bumped up to 25 feet.
Existing business would be grandfathered in to the law and would be not be required to meet restrictions. Schools, houses of worship, and supermarkets would be exempt.
For both districts a “50 percent transparency requirement” would require store frontage to be transparent from 2 feet to 12 feet. The detail grew from community complaints about advertising that enveloped entire window displays, essentially creating sidewalk level billboards. But the City Planning proposal doesn’t dictate what goes on behind the glass storefront. The community board leadership indicated that they would continue to push for window signage regulations.
Architect Page Cowley, chair of CB7 Land Use, told the crowd that she was generally pleased with the proposal but had a few concerns about the formulaic approach. “By trying to characterize spontaneity, you’re in danger of creating homogeny,” she said. She remained concerned with the window requirement, particularly along Amsterdam and Columbus where original window dimensions vary more than along Broadway.
The new district could become a template for other neighborhoods. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer told the crowd that the proposal has “city-wide applications.” Council Member Gale Brewer concurred, “This could be a model.”
But in a telephone interview Michael Slattery, senior VP of the Real Estate Board of New York, said that the new regulations would harm the very businesses City Planning is trying to preserve. He added that the proposal’s discretionary waver arrangement would add a layer of ULURP that smaller businesses wishing to expand would not be able to afford. “Landmarks is already problematic,” he said of the Historic District designations. “It’s creating another layer and it’s the smaller stores that’ll have the greatest difficulty.”