Keeping our favorite small businesses on the map

Keeping our favorite small businesses on the map

Thanks to all of you who responded to my email last week about your favorite small businesses in our community and what we can do to help them continue to thrive -- in advance of our City Council hearing on the topic last Friday.

More than 130 of you took the time to tell us about your favorite “mom and pops” -- including long-time favorites like the Community Bookstore, Brancaccio’s Foodshop, Clay Pot, D’Amico’s Coffee, Leopoldi’s Hardware, Lion in the Sun, and so many more. We’ve put them all on this map. Happy local shopping!

We’re lucky to live in a community with such a thriving, diverse, and unique retail scene. But we know these businesses face daunting challenges, especially during a time of rising rents and online shopping.

So we also really appreciated the ideas you sent for preserving retail diversity and supporting small businesses. Some of my favorite ideas came from Jennifer DeLuca (owner of Body Tonic). We submitted her Facebook post as formal testimony at the Council hearing.

At the hearing, the Council considered a range of ideas for zoning and incentive programs to support locally-owned, independent small businesses. To be honest, I was disappointed with the testimony from the Administration, and I pushed them hard on it. We don’t currently have good policies in place (or even good data about the problem) to help preserve the small businesses and neighborhood retail diversity that we treasure.  

We did hear great testimony from small business owners themselves, from business improvement districts (BIDs), from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and from think-tanks like the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Here are a few of the ideas that I thought were promising:

  1. Restrictions on “chain stores,” (i.e. national retailers, from Starbucks to Walmart) like those found in San Francisco can help promote local, independent businesses. Several cities have adopted ordinances to reasonably restrict these uses, allowing chain stores only where they’re really needed to serve the community.

  2. Regulations on storefront size and use, similar to those in the Upper West Side that restrict banks and chain-pharmacies, can help make room for those small businesses in the neighborhood, and discourage sprawling “big box” stores.

  3. Set asides for local businesses in new development. We’re looking at policies like this in Bridging Gowanus, to help make sure that we preserve the mix of uses that makes Gowanus creative and compelling.

  4. “No-Vacancy” incentives, like those found in San Francisco, can help discourage the “warehousing” of retail space and encourage storefront owners to offer leases to small businesses at fair rents.

Some of you have asked why I don’t support the “Small Business Jobs Survival Act,” which would mandate a minimum 10-year lease with a right to renewal, and binding arbitration on lease renewal terms for commercial leases. I’m sympathetic to this effort, and especially to the small businesses it seeks to protect. Unfortunately, I have concluded that the City Council does not have the legal authority to implement the act as drafted.

New York State law governs contracts between businesses. To impair contracts like commercial leases -- to require a renewal when one was not required to begin with -- would require State authorizing legislation. Just as NYC’s residential rent regulations are authorized at the State level (by the “Emergency Tenant Protection Act,” originally passed in Albany after WWII in 1947, and then re-authorized in 1974, and renewed every few years since), regulations on commercial leases would need to be authorized in State law and carefully constructed to survive court challenge. If Albany can construct a legally-sound, thoughtfully targeted approach to providing some protections for independently-owned small businesses, I would be eager to support and implement it here.         

Even in the meantime, though, I believe that there are policy steps that New York City can take on its own -- like those outlined above -- to support the small businesses and retail diversity that help make our neighborhoods great, despite the challenges of rising rents and e-commerce. I am committed to working with my colleagues, small business owners, and advocates to bring some of those policies to reality.

In the coming months, there’s one thing we can all do: as the holidays approach, let’s make sure to patronize the local businesses we treasure. Many retail businesses do a huge percentage of their sales between now and the end of the year. I hope you’ll use our map -- along with word-of-mouth, and your own street smarts -- to help make sure this year is a good one for them.

Thanks, as always, for sharing your ideas and pushing for policies that help to strengthen our neighborhoods.

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