BY GABE HERMAN | Community Board 2 has formed a new committee specifically to grapple with a shocking new reality impacting the Village / Lower West Side district: the blight of empty storefronts.
The initiative was the idea of Terri Cude, the board’s chairperson.
At the inaugural meeting of the C.B. 2 Economic and Business Development Committee, on Thurs., July 26, at the Little Red School House, representatives of local business improvement districts, or BIDs, outlined the retail health of the geographic areas they cover and discussed, with community board members and locals, the problems and potential solutions to retail struggles.
As vacancy rates were discussed, BID representatives stressed that each area has its own challenges and unique retail features. The Soho Broadway Initiative described having a 20 percent vacancy, while there is 15 percent vacancy in the Noho BID, and 10 percent in the Hudson Square Connection BID, whose representative noted that was sharply down from 30 percent in 2008. William Kelley of the Village Alliance, which is centered on Eighth St., Sixth Ave., Astor Place and St. Mark’s Place, noted that vacancy in their district was generally around 3 to 5 percent. However, he said, it was now up to 7 percent, the highest since the 2008 crash, which saw 40 percent of the district’s retail spaces empty.
BIDs are created when a strong majority of local property owners vote to form them; the property owners are then assessed a special tax by the city, which is then funneled back to the BID for it to provide supplemental city services, such as sanitation, security and marketing for the area.
Questions from locals in the audience centered around how all of the empty storefronts could be filled.
“Every situation is unique,” responded Mark Dicus, executive director of the Soho Broadway Initiative. He described longtime property owners, for example, that simply weren’t getting offers for their spaces because of limited demand in the market. “They’re not getting legitimate proposals at any price,” he explained. “They’re getting short-term but nothing long-term.”
More flexible leases were discussed. Corey Kunz of the Hudson Square Connection BID noted a recent success, the Color Factory, an upcoming pop-up exhibit at Spring and Varick Sts. The exhibit will have just a one- or two-year lease while providing an experience to customers that will draw more foot traffic to the area.
“I think that flexibility is really important,” noted Kunz.
Another flexible-lease idea was offering lower rents to start out, followed by revenue sharing and gradually increasing rents, to give new businesses a chance to gain momentum. A member of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce noted that some businesses in Brooklyn were already experimenting with this model.
Cordelia Persen, executive director of the Noho BID, noted, “What you’ll see in probably almost all our neighborhoods is this rise in experiential shopping, and so we have these big spaces and they attract fun activities.”
Persen pointed to the recent addition of the new Casper flagship store, on Mercer St. between W. Houston and Bleecker Sts., which doesn’t just sell mattresses but also offers customers a place to nap for a fee. Persen said a few other experiential retail stores were on the way.
“That is really the future of retail, at least in our districts,” she stated.
The panel was asked whether a vacancy tax might be effective, but Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, said she was against it.
“Anytime a beloved business in Union Square closes, more often than not, there’s a very distinct drama going on behind the scenes, with the ownership or with the business,” Falk said. “There’s just so many issues going on. I think an across-the-board tax for vacancy would just hurt.”
Audience members expressed skepticism over whether Brookfield, which recently bought several buildings on Bleecker St., would be a beneficial retail presence.
Maria Diaz, executive director of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, said that Brookfield had told her of planning to bring in small businesses, and staying away from chains. When concerns were still expressed about Brookfield, Diaz said, “I can only give you what they have said. They are not going to try to put in any chain stores… . They’re curating art into some of their spaces.”
Diaz said that Brookfield had been reaching out to local groups, including G.V.C.C.C. and the community board, and had wanted to come to that evening’s meeting.
Topics raised for the new committee’s next meeting in September were to invite Brookfield, along with local big property owners, to hear about their perspectives and experiences with local retail.