By Andrew Berman
One of the most pressing neighborhood issues on the minds of many West Villagers, and many New Yorkers, is the disappearance of local small businesses. Time after time, we see cherished neighborhood businesses closing, often replaced by chain stores or worse, and storefronts that remain empty for years while property owners seek tenants willing to pay dramatically increased rents. This results in a deadening and homogenizing of our streets and neighborhoods, less of a personal relationship between merchants and their communities, and in some cases, the inability to find local services like dry cleaners or grocery stores.
Unfortunately, until recently, little has been done by the city government to help address this. But a change in the leadership and membership of the City Council may help change that.
Late last year, the City Council voted to roll back the threshold for the commercial rent tax, which applied to all businesses below 96th Street that paid more than $250,000 in annual rent. When originally passed decades ago, it was a high threshold which only applied to the most prosperous, high-rent businesses. Now, that price tag is not uncommon for Manhattan businesses, and the threshold was elevated to $500,000 per year.
While this is a helpful step in the right direction, more needs to be done. Because such a frequent problem for businesses is the refusal of owners to renew long-term leases at a reasonable rate, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) is supporting the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). The bill would do three things:
- Offer tenants a minimum 10-year lease renewal for commercial leases, allowing businesses to better plan for their future;
- Provide equal negotiation terms when it comes time to renew their lease, with recourse to binding arbitration by a third party if fair terms cannot be reached; and
- Prevent landlords from passing their property taxes on to small business owners.While the majority of the City Council sponsored the legislation under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, neither a hearing nor a vote was ever allowed on the bill. However, that may soon change. The new City Council Speaker (and local City Council Member) Corey Johnson has publicly pledged to hold a hearing on the SBJSA, reiterating that commitment after he was elected Speaker. While a hearing far from guarantees the bill’s passage, it is a necessary first step. The powerful Real Estate Board of New York strongly opposed the bill, so this will be a tough battle, but it is certainly one worth fighting.
GVSHP is also pursuing zoning regulations that would limit the concentration and placement of chain stores in certain areas. While other cities have implemented such measures, New York City has not. We are working with allied groups and a grass-roots merchants association to try to secure such first-of-their-kind protections in the East Village, where the necessary strong support from merchants, community leaders, and other stakeholders already exists. We are hopeful that if we are successful there, it will assist with efforts in other areas like the West Village, which don’t yet have the same consensus from merchants on this issue. We are also looking into other possible helpful measures, like disincentives for retail spaces being left vacant for protracted periods of time if and when there is a demand for such space.
GVSHP also works hard to encourage support for local independent businesses. One way is through our Business of the Month program, where we celebrate one local business on our website, blog, social media, and e-newsletter each month. We highlight its special story, background, ownership, and the goods or services it provides. We reach tens of thousands of individuals each month with this program, and hope to encourage awareness and patronage of our unique local businesses in this way. Anyone can nominate a favorite local business for Business of the Month just by visiting gvshp.org/bom. Patronizing independently owned local businesses is probably the single most important thing you as an individual can do to support them and help ensure their perpetuation.
To find out more about all of these efforts, and how you can support the SBJSA, visit: gvshp.org/helpsmallbiz.
Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation since 2002. He previously worked in the New York State Senate and New York City Council for Thomas K. Duane, who represented Greenwich Village, the East Village, and other neighborhoods. While working in state and city government, Andrew focused on issues including land use and historic preservation. A lifelong New Yorker, Andrew has an Art History degree from Wesleyan University.