November 2017
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Preserving the Character of New York City’s Neighborhoods

New York is a city of neighborhoods. Our local grocery stores, coffee shops, dry cleaners, neighborhood restaurants define where we live and give our communities their singular identities.  In recent years, however, with the wave of big box development and new construction, there has been a palpable change in the character of many communities across the city. This change is especially acute on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Key thoroughfares like Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues and Broadway, once largely the domain of mom-and-pop retailers, have been overrun by chain stores, large residential lobbies and banks.  Put them all on the same block and you’ve created an uninviting streetscape, crowding out–and pricing out– the small businesses that were once the lifeblood of the community.

The City Council is scheduled to vote today on a proposal developed by the Department of City Planning, working closely with Upper West Siders and Council member Gale Brewer, to restrict the amount of space banks and building lobbies can occupy on the ground floor on the Upper West Side.  The zoning change would also require multiple stores to occupy larger development sites, instead of allowing one large store.  The proposal, if signed into law, would create streets that support a broader mix of retail options for which the Upper West Side, like many neighborhoods in the city, is well-known.

The City Council should support this measure.

This approach, of course, has its critics. Some in the real estate and banking industries object to these additional restrictions.  They argue that the restrictions hinder their ability to adjust to market conditions.  The proposal addresses these concerns.  It does not exclude banks or even restrict their size; it only limits the amount of street frontage they can take up on the ground floor.  And in the long run creating neighborhoods with a mix of retail will only make for more desirable neighborhoods and generate value.

Our leaders in the City Council have a unique opportunity before them.  By passing this measure they can support diverse retailers and small businesses, while strengthening those qualities that make our neighborhoods—and our city—so unique.

But these kinds of zoning restrictions are only one option to help support this goal.

It’s also essential to consider other approaches.  ING, the Dutch Bank, provides one.  Primarily an online bank they have opened an ING Direct Café on East 58th Street and 3rd Avenue that simultaneously offers a place to do your personal banking and a comfortable setting to check email, meet a friend for a cup of coffee or sit and read the newspaper.  This results in a bank that serves multiple purposes and creates a much more active and inviting community gathering place.   And as The Economist has recently reported when Citigroup decided to build new banks in Singapore, it hired Eight Inc, the firm that had designed Apple’s stores to re-think their design.

The City Council must do its part to encourage business diversity on our city’s main commercial streets by approving this zoning change.  But it’s also up to the banks and other large stores to rethink their positions in the community, to embrace a more inclusive approach to life in the neighborhood and to support the character of the neighborhoods they’ve moved into.

Update (June 29): City Council voted to approve the zoning change.