Monday, January 15, 2018

Saving Coogan's

Yesterday, local politicians and community members gathered to rally for Coogan's Bar and Restaurant in Washington Heights. After hiking Coogan's rent by $40,000, the landlord, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, surrendered under public pressure this week and made a deal to keep Coogan's in place for the foreseeable future. (The details are being kept confidential.)

On the cold and sunny Sunday afternoon, in front of a large crowd, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Public Advocate Letitia James, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer made celebratory speeches, calling Coogan's "the United Nations of Washington Heights" and a "civic center" for the neighborhood. They also promised to save small businesses across the five boroughs.

"We spoke with one voice," said Brewer. "We want to do the same thing for other mom and pops. This is just the beginning."

"Our work must continue," said James. "Small businesses are suffering and we need to come to a resolution to protect small businesses in the city."

"Coogan's," said Stringer, "is the line in the sand."

But what do they plan to do? After questions from the press, the discussion got around to solutions, specifically the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a bill that many activists have been pushing for years (see flyer below).

"We need a hearing on the SBJSA," said James. "We're going to be urging the City Council and Corey Johnson to put it forward."

Currently, most City Council members support the SBJSA. To pass, the new Speaker must bring it to a vote. This is essential. Only a broad-reaching policy like the SBJSA--or the return of commercial rent control--will save our small businesses. Like Espaillat said to the crowd, handling the problem of evicted mom and pops one by one is not a solution. "We're going to lose a lot of them," he said, "and we need legislation. We're going to stop hyper-gentrification."

After the rally, inside Coogan's, I talked with Lena Melendez, a local social worker and organizer with RENA (Riverside Edgecombe Neighborhood Association) and Dominicanos Pro Defensa Negocios Y Viviendas (DDNV).

Lena and I discussed hyper-gentrification in Washington Heights. "The landlords are being incentivized to push people out," she explained, pointing to the 20% vacancy bonus loophole in the rent regulation laws. "It's an erosion of the consumer base. And small businesses have no protections whatsoever."

Real-estate speculation has been pushed into overdrive by the city's rezoning of Inwood. Lena noted the spread of high-rent blight infecting upper Broadway, a rash of storefronts forcibly emptied and kept empty. "The landlords need to be punished," she said, with disincentives like a vacancy tax. But that won't fix every situation. "If a business is in a two-story building, they're a dead duck." With a demolition clause in the lease and no rent-regulated tenants to deal with, the developers can just kick out the business and demolish.

Why is this problem so hard to fight? "Because REBNY is so strong," Lena said, "and the politicians are like prostitutes being bought." She wants to see the neighborhood get organized. "The Latino community has to stand up. But they need to be informed. If this community knew what that rezoning will do to the neighborhood, they'd be marching in the streets."

"The politicians want us all to think the rezoning is a good thing." To that she says, "You're jerking me around. You're pissing on my head and calling it rain."

When we finished talking, Lena went back to gathering signatures on a petition to save Galicia, a restaurant just a few blocks up Broadway, getting forced out after 30 years in business.

flyer by Jenny Dubnau


Unknown said...

If The Mayor would wake the f,,,,k up and do one thing correctly it would be get behind this and make it work.
If even they just penalized Landlords for having a store front empty for more than 3 months.
Does the City Gov. not realize how much revenue is lost by all this warehoused space??
Its crazy.

James said...

Coogan's is a special case, I do believe - being a long-time meeting spot for uptown politicians and people like Scott Stringer, who grew up in the vicinity. What better place to stage a defense? I hope it is more than a mere staging, but the news is quite good anyway. The problem is, most businesses getting forced out have no such political symbolism or connection, and once gone they are never dragged back into existence. If a landlord knows it can bill $40,000/mo for a smallish space, profit motivation almost demands that it do that.

Further, I think there should be a certain requirement that useful stores remain - and those can be either purely practical or part of the quality of life. Banks aren't fit to fill all the blanks. What, then, is the goal of having a city? -- just making a killing? Or is there something more humanistic - something which we are actually capable of defending?

Phoenixrising said...

It's a big write-off for these greedy landlords to keep space empty. If they can only realistically rent a space for $2500/month, they can say it's valued at say $5000/month and write-off that loss as opposed to making only $2500 and paying taxes on income. They'll bide their time until the right offer comes along — like an offer to buy the property for another luxury condo property. It just shows what kind of money these businesses make that can pay these exorbitant rents and still make a hefty profit, but many don't want to put up with all the regulations and harassment from city officials and inspectors.

I knew a shop owner in the Bronx who had a news/smoke shop on a corner location with a bus stop. People would smoke and crush out their cigarettes, toss garbage into those useless mesh trash cans where a refrigerator box would blow through the openings, and he was constantly sweeping up to avoid fines. He had just finished sweeping when someone crushed out a cigarette butt in frront of his store. A sanitation officer came into his shop and started to write him a ticket for having the butt in front of his store. Well he went off on the officer telling him how he just swept and he can't be expected to be standing outside to sweep when he has a business to run, blah blah blah. That officer apologized and high tailed it out of there. So how do you expect anyone wanting to open a business in the city when you have the bad guys coming in th eback door and the government coming in the front door both taking money out of your pocket? I would never open a business in NYC and apparently a lot of people feel the same way. Besides the outrageous rents, there's too many rules and regulations to abide by that make it very difficult to open and run a business unless of course you made a nice big donation to de Blasio.