Last night I went to the Neighborhood Forum on Preserving Local Businesses on the Upper West Side, hosted by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. This was my second encounter with Mr. Stringer, the first at the rally to save the small businesses of 9th Ave in Chelsea. I am fast becoming a fan and have been entertaining fantasies of seeing him as mayor.
The forum was held in the ballroom of a synagogue on 76th, and the 150 or so seats were filled with Upper West Siders passionate about their neighborhood and still high from a day spent noshing at Barney Greengrass.
Stringer spoke first, talking about his taskforce to save the mom-and-pops of New York City and asking the audience to give advice and suggestions. "It's time," he said, "for a good old-fashioned West Side town hall meeting... The loss of a small business is the loss of a friend or a relative." People applauded.
Next up was State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who gave the financial "macro picture." I tuned out for most of it because I can't stand hearing about math, but perked up when he said, "There's been a constriction in the Wall Street bonus pool and you can bet there will be a significant drop in the bonus pool in 2008... Wall Street will lose 25,000 more jobs during this current economic downturn."
Next, the microphone went to the people, who lined up to give their suggestions. Amazingly, this crowd, unlike most, did not hog the mike with long-winded, tangential commentary. They actually had useful and interesting things to say.
Two people suggested that vacant spaces receive a tax after 30 days of sitting empty, so landlords will stop the insidious practice of "warehousing" spaces until they amass enough to rent to a big box store. This might stop landlords from hiking rents sky-high, rents they know their old tenants can't afford.
The "wife of Big Nick," of Big Nick's burger and pizza joint (since 1962), suggested repealing the commercial rent tax put in place during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Rents are going up all over the UWS, she said, with $300sf becoming the average and $500sf the norm in new buildings. They're now paying $31,000 a month in rent and are trying not to raise their prices, though "pizza dough is through the roof." At current costs, and rising, she said, "No one who works for us wants to take over the business--is it worth it?"
Next to the mike was the owner of the Apthorp Cleaners, in the Apthorp building, which is going condo. (Read "Apoplectic at the Apthorp" for more info on the shady process.) Residents aren't the only ones getting the boot. The Cleaners received a letter on April 1 telling them they had until June to get out.
Small businesses, both high-end and low, are losing out to big-box and luxury chain development in this city. I'm relieved to see that people are finally coming out to fight this destruction. Here's another opportunity TONIGHT: A screening of Twilight Becomes Night and discussion about saving local businesses in the East Village, 6:30 at St. Mark's Church.