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Chain Store Creep

retail chain store creep new york

Has your local deli or bodega — that friendly neighborhood place where you grab your morning coffee and newspaper — been replaced by a chain drug store? Or is that new building under construction down the block going to displace the small local shops you depend on with two more bank branches?

This phenomenon is not happening to you alone. It is occurring all over New York City. The city is enjoying a huge construction boom, but the unique character of its richly diverse small neighborhoods is threatened everywhere. Chain retail stores, banks and drug stores are sweeping the city.

The Municipal Art Society’s Streetscape Committee is monitoring this trend with a wary eye. Recently, a panel of experts moderated by retail and urban design specialist Jeanne Giordano, the former director of development for Grand Central Terminal, was brought together to consider this issue. This special advocacy program, held at the Urban Center on September 28, was a standing-room-only hit.

According to the experts, chain stores are very desirable tenants because they are reliable and backed by national corporations. Local retailers — long the backbone of city commerce — are regarded as more of a risk. Banks seek corner locations and can well afford to pay a premium price to secure that bit of prime real estate. And developers are eager to lock in profits and sign up a national retail anchor.

Is this a hopeless situation that New Yorkers will have to live with, or are there ways that we can alter this drift before the city street life that we know and love disappears? Currently, if a developer assembles city-owned land and builds on the parcel, the city reviews the retail component and shapes it so that it includes local retailers. But most new development occurs on private property and there is no oversight as to what is included in the overall plan.

Good Precedents Exist – Occasionally, enlightened developers realize that they can actually increase the value of their property by giving residential tenants and neighbors what they want: a specialized and diversified shopping experience instead of cookie-cutter monotony. Fortunately, some good examples of planned diversified retailing — like the wide range of shops at Grand Central — already exist in the city.

Chelsea Market, on Ninth Avenue at 15th Street, is a terrific success. It was developed in the mid-1990s in a massive old Nabisco bakery just north of Greenwich Village. Tenants had to be family-owned businesses, and half of them had to be female-owned. It was a social experiment that worked out very, very well.

The Streetscape Committee is considering the idea of advocating for the city to plan more effectively how to ensure that the diverse and ethnic character of neighborhood retail retains a foothold in the city. Stay tuned for more details in the months ahead.

Looking Ahead – As Irwin Cohen, the entrepreneur who developed Chelsea Market, said, “We live in a great city composed of a couple of small islands and a couple of other boroughs attached to other small islands. Only the borough of the Bronx is attached to the mainland of the United States. Our 8 million residents are being trumped on by 292 million people who live on the mainland and they are trying to push their retail ideas on us, turning us into a giant suburban mall.”

New York City is special because it is not a giant suburban mall. The question now is: can we change the course of retail chain store creep before it overwhelms us?