Monday, August 29, 2016

Vacant New York

If you look around the city, or follow this blog, you know that New York's small businesses are being wiped out by unregulated sky-high rents. The spaces then sit empty for months, sometimes years, warehoused by landlords who let the streetscape die while they wait for big chains to move in. At #SaveNYC, we've been pressuring City Hall to do something about a problem that Tim Wu at The New Yorker dubbed "high-rent blight."

Now Justin Levinson has added ammunition to the fight--an invaluable tool called "Vacant New York." It's an interactive map that shows where the high-rent blight is. In short, it's everywhere.

Justin is a 34-year-old computer programmer who has lived in the city for 11 years. He and I chatted over Facebook:

JM: What prompted you to do the project? What was your "final straw"?

JL: I think the anger and upset that you and I feel about the changes in the city were an undercurrent and a driver, but the last push was curiosity. I had been digging through the open data sets that the city puts out, and saw all the building footprints. I had been wandering around and saw favorite places that were closed and replaced with nothing. I wanted to see if it was really as bad as it looked.

JM: How has the response been since Vacant New York went out to the public?

JL: Surprisingly positive. I've gotten e-mails from the usual news outlets and such, but also from a lawyer, a chef, store owners. It's clearly something people are already aware of and passionate about. The project has been kind of a lightning rod for the issue, but it's clearly in the air. I just saw the Tribeca Citizen's new crop of vacant storefront photos, and the Times just put out an article (quoting you) after Tekserve went.

JM: People are frustrated about it, but no one knows what to do. One of the myths I've been trying to fight is this idea that it's just "natural," due to "market forces."

JL: I ran up against the not knowing what to do problem as well. Early feedback I got in a sneak preview was: “Right, but so what? What do we do?” And I didn't have a great answer. “Write your senator” seems ineffective.

JM: I do believe something can be done. But I can’t figure out how high-rent blight can make sense financially for landlords. What’s the incentive? I’ve heard there’s a tax break for commercial vacancies.

JL: I haven't heard about a tax break per se, but I do know that if you have a portfolio of properties bringing in revenue, offsetting it with anything you can find brings your tax bill down. So those “losses” on the vacant storefronts would reduce the company's net income, but I'm not sure how that's calculated.

JM: So the empty storefronts are “losses” that reduce income and that reduces the taxes? I am no accountant.

JL: I have a couple of accountant friends. I should buy them lunch and go over this. I'm sure it's a specialized and esoteric set of tax laws. The other possibility is they've got enough free cash to weather the minor maintenance of an empty property in the hopes that a bigger fish coming in later is going to make it all worthwhile.

JM: We're not talking about the mom-and-pop landlord, but major developers and hedgefunds.

JL: If you happen to own one building, your approach is very different. The landlord of the place where I work and run a community space is an incredibly stand-up guy who inherited the building from his father and is hell-bent on creating a real community in his building. He 100% could not weather more than a couple months without a tenant in the retail space.

JM: So what do we do about high-rent blight? London, I think, might be trying something.

JL: That is the multi-billion-dollar question. There's obviously not an amazing, simple answer, or we would have done it. I come from a startup and tech background, so I'm a big fan of small experiments. Trying to make a sweeping regulatory change across the city is going to be hard and politically difficult, so I'm wondering if there's a way to give something a shot in a district or two and see how it goes.

I think the blight is also different in different areas. The reports I got from readers about Smith Street in Brooklyn say it's common there, but I bet the ownership looks different than SoHo. We'd need to tailor a solution to the neighborhood.

JM: It seems like it's happening in neighborhoods where hyper-gentrification happened first--or fast. SoHo, the Village, the Upper West Side. I'd like to see a city-wide tax on storefronts left vacant for longer than, say, 6 months. But you're right, the administration isn't going to go for that. We are in a political and economic climate that is hostile to small business.

JL: It's happening lots of other places, too. My girlfriend grew up in Toronto and I went to school in Rochester, so I've seen some pretty sweeping changes there. The downtown core is a canyon of glass and steel.

JM: It's definitely global. In the course of writing my book on Vanishing New York, I've come to the conclusion that this is the impact of globalized neoliberalism--the whole anti-regulation, "free market," "trickle down" problem that's caused such a mess in the world. It convinces people that "this is natural and inevitable," when it is really the result of specific policies.

JL: I really want to see something tried. Start with some place that already has a strong sense of community--Park Slope, the East Village, Tribeca--and see if we can swing the tide backwards. Put in a vacancy tax, give breaks to businesses who own less than X outlets, something.

There's only a couple of tools that I see the administration having--taxes and regulation. And regulation takes forever to implement and always gets watered down.

JM: Regulation gets watered down in this anti-regulation system we're in. But it wasn't always that way.

JL: When was it different?

JM: Things really changed in the 1980s. The city was restructured after the crisis of the 1970s. Before, New York took care of its people. After, New York took care of big business, developers, and tourists. That's a very different approach.

The economic environment we're in today is not the only one we've ever had. There is an alternative. When I've suggested commercial rent control, people flip out. “You could never!” But we did. New York City had commercial rent control for years after World War II.

JL: Wow, I did not know that.

JM: The city implemented commercial rent control as an emergency measure to protect businesses. Do you think, after making your map, we're in an emergency today?

JL: Not an emergency in the four-alarm fire sense. More of a climate-change emergency. It's been a long, slow process to get where we are, and we're tracking towards a disaster if we don't shift course.

A problem is that, while nobody is fine with sea-level rise and major storms, there are plenty of people who seem to be fine with nothing but bank branches and chain restaurants.

JM: How would you characterize that coming disaster? What future do you see for New York if we don't make a change?

JL: Having unaffordable vacancies is effectively the same as having no vacancies as far as small business is concerned. There's no space to get a foothold. So nobody can take risks, and we get nothing but the tried-and-true businesses (i.e., chains) that seem to be taking over. It's like Hollywood. Movies are so incredibly expensive to make that we just get reboots and sequels.

There’s a strange dichotomy between the image of New York as a place where you can be your own weird self, and there's space to do that, versus all of the weird and unique stuff slowly being squeezed out.

JM: What brought you to New York? I'm guessing it wasn't the chain stores.

JL: Gravity, I think. I grew up not far away, and I remember coming into the East Village in the ‘90s to see shows, shopping at Yellow Rat Bastard, and taking a class at SVA where the teacher suggested we steal our books. To a teenager from the suburbs, that all seems awesome. I moved here after graduation for a terrible corporate job, but I could do what I wanted after hours: midnight bike races, weird DVDs from Kim's Video, and Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam in the basement of Cake Shop.

It was the fact that, no matter what you were into, there were a few hundred other people that loved it, too, and you could be part of that community.

JM: I think sometimes that many people come to New York now because there's a Starbucks on every other corner. People seem to want that.

JL: It really is weird to me--coming all the way here and spending insane amounts of money to stay in a hotel and eating at the same Olive Garden as back home?

JM: That is something I'm trying to get my head around. Okay, last question: What do you hope your project will achieve?

JL: Ideas are much harder to grasp than concrete examples. We're seeing isolated reports and grumblings from around the city about the blight problem, but it's easy to dismiss that as existing in isolation. If this project can get people--citizens and government--to say, "Wow, that does look pretty bad. We should fix that," it's a big step. If there's a push at the policy level to implement changes, even on a trial basis, and they point to evidence that includes this map as their reasons for doing so, I'd be ecstatic.

It's hard to not throw your hands up and say it's unfixable, there's too much money, etc. But that seems like tossing in the towel, and the encouragement I've gotten from just a couple of small business owners in response to this says it's not time for that yet.

Get involved. Visit Vacant New York and go to #SaveNYC where we've made it easy for you to write the mayor and more.


Scout said...

Fascinating project; unfortunately, it's too large for one person to accurately handle. Just looking at the neighborhoods where I live/work/spend time, I note that a few of those stores are no longer vacant; one was a McDonald's (whose loss has been mourned by none); one was a luxury dog grooming salon; two were nail salons; another is the Signature Theater space. Several are in the process of being prepared for new businesses.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

Is there no stopping these (obviously subsidized) "domestic coup d'etat" factions from steamrollering this nation's metropolises?

laura rubin said...

this is typical in other cities- even in other countries. there are tacky strip malls which are usually empty. business move in & out. usually chain businesses which are not needed. (like salade bars, or a sugarless bakery, or a useless cosmetic store). the corps over estimate the tourism or the everyday shoppers. they buy nice green lots & build these ugly empty faceless buidings w/parking lots.

Peter Petino said...

I have the answer -- there shopild be a tax for store fronts that are not rented within a given time (like 3 months) this tax increases with time. The landlord will pay the tax or lower the rent. There is something similar that happens with land being held - I am not sure of the name.
Peter Petino Active Transport Messenger service.

Richard Federico said...

I always suspected creative accounting practices as part of the engine that is powering this Hyper-gentrification. Just goes to show you how big and powerful is this monster we are up against when they can actually profit by leaving so much prime space vacant!

To the point made about not being able to wrap ones head around the idea that people like having these universal Olive Garden or Starbucks experiences I will share this. Whenever I ask anyone who frequents these types of global franchises why they prefer them over a unique local mom and pop business, they will deny that they do. So you really can't get a straight answer out of them, in fact they will even shake their heads in agreement that its a shame what has happened to those unique businesses. Some will say I only come here for this or that and it's quick and also there is not many other choices. Well they may be right about that today.

At the very least we have to realize that they don't really mind globalization and many even celebrate it. Right now the world caters to young people while at the same time corporate marketeers have corralled and brainwashed young people into focusing on their brands. Many people today have been brainwashed into not trusting any thing that doesn't fit their perception of "normal". We see this evidenced in the practice of using hand sanitizing lotion, or wearing respiratory filters strapped across their face (now they are putting "fashionable" prints on them), even drinking bottled water exclusively.

All these particular, or "peculiar" behaviors (depending on how you look at it) lend themselves to the brainwashed brand name culture we live in today. The notion that one is safer eating at commercial chains because there are universal standards and practices of food handling and ultimately food safety. Also people want to be able to predict with reasonable certainty that what they order will taste exactly like what they were expecting or are familiar with. Heaven forbid something tastes a little different!

People today will do the same with product purchases, take clothing for instance. People mostly buy universally trending name brand clothing, often times paying top dollar for sub par quality because of the notion that they will automatically be in style or at least not stand out as different. Oh, and lets not forget it's convenient and the chain is running a good sale.

It's all about predictability and false sense of security everyone seems to be more than willing to spend so much for today. Speaking of security, many people will refer to the "bad old days" of New York and justify globalized hyper-gentrification as at least being a better than that! They equate these universally staged urban environments or zombie urban brandvironments as having a measure of predictable safety and security.

Much of New York's economy today is catering to, but also being fed by all these young transplants who came from very similar suburban settings. They are totally fine with the constantly rising "Mall Of America" because it's what they know and can feel safe and comfortable in. For now in their logic they are safe...for now.

David Shea said...

Not only the older mom-and-pop-style stores are going out of business; some of the new ones stay in business for only a few months. A place called Beer World, a door or 2 down 8th Ave. south of 26th St., opened up less than 1/2 a year ago and has now closed. —Dave Shea

Richard Federico said...

Peter petino's idea sounds pretty good! I can't believe that practice is not already in place. David also makes a good observation and I would argue that most these places don't last for more than a few months. As Laura Rubin notes they are tacky fru-fru businesses that aren't needed and yet they keep popping up and shutting down while you scratch your head.

I am a little sorry I missed Beer World...Haha!

Donnie Moder said...

There has been a tremendous turnover of people in Manhattan for the past 20 and it seems to accelerate each year. It's hard to even find people with a traditional NYC accent. And a lot of the native tastes and traditions have been replaced by general Mall of America sensibilities. Newcomers find security in the corporate chain they are familiar with.

jesali said...

IMO Richard Federico makes an important point about the millennial demographic and brands - "consumption" of stuff (food, clothes, entertainment etc) is a primary aspect of millennial "culture" and thus brands are an integral part of this norm.

There was much media discussion that young people did not favor Brexit, that young people favored the fluidity of the EU and were less focused on national identity etc.

The irony that seems to be forgotten in most discussions about Brexit (and related topics) is that, while it seems to be true that young people have less allegiance to their "country", younger people now seem to have more allegiance to "corporations" and corporate products - eg phones, streaming services, instant gratifications services like Uber, etc.

IMO do not see how commitment to corporations/products is better or more progressive than commitment to your country or community?

Auntie Social said...

I am a longtime NYC resident (an old person with a rent-stabilized apartment), and I have a couple of burning questions about the dystopian transformation of my neighborhood.

1. In this era of online banking, why on earth are banks so willing to pay three or six or ten times the rent formerly paid by a goofy costume store, or candle emporium, etc., just to commandeer ever more brick-and-mortar space for TD Bank, Bank of America, CapitalBank, Chase, etc?

2.Why do banks even want meatspace? And why does every bank that takes over a formerly lively business install between 10 and 12 teller windows, when no more than two tellers will ever work at that particular bank location?

Frosty said...

Commercial landlords can command enormous upfront fees from potential tenants. One retailer in my area on the UWS had to pay 2 years rent in advance which if I recall correctly the landlord could keep if the tenant left under certain circumstances. and when that tenant went belly up after a year, they lost that security as well. This is just one way that a commercial landlord can afford to ride out any downturns without having to lower rents. There is NO free market, it does not exist in NYC.