City Council considers proposal to limit UWS retail chains

January 26, 2012 2:14:11 PM PST
The look of the Upper West Side is changing, and some say not for the better. Smaller businesses are being squeezed out in favor of larger retail chains.

Now, there's a proposal to change the zoning laws in order to help preserve the feel of the neighborhood.

Part of the charm of the Upper West Side is the ability to stroll along the sidewalk and window shop. But more often, the view is of a bank or a drug store that takes up the entire block. So a proposal that would put restrictions on new businesses is being discussed.

Mom-and-pop businesses have been the life blood of the area for years, but residents say it appears that is changing. The proposal calls for a special commercial district along Columbus and Amsterdam avenues that would limit the size of new businesses. It would also require a minimum number per block.

City Council member Gale Brewer says the area needs a balance.

"We need large stores and we need small stores," Brewer said. "But here in this neighborhood, I think we've gone, tipped over towards larger stores."

What often happens is that a landlord will not renew the leases on several smaller businesses. Then, with the entire space empty, they rent to one large retailer who provides stable rent. That's what happened to Apthorp Cleaners, who had to move after 25 years in the Apthorpe building to make way for a national luggage chain. When they relocated to Amsterdam Avenue, Debra Kravet and her husband were relieved...initially.

"My first thought after we signed the lease was it's really nice to be moving back to a block, like it was 26 years ago," she said.

But now another large project is right next door to her business. It's the new home of Sugar and Plumm, a themed restaurant and candy store that is taking the space previously home to five smaller businesses.

The head of the Real Estate Board of New York says in a free market, customers should dictate what succeeds and what fails.

"The people in this community are going to dictate what kind of stores are going to be located here," Steven Spinola said. "And to take away the options of putting banks in with frontages of more than 25 feet or stores with more than 40-foot frontage make no sense at all."

For its part, Sugar and Plumm made some changes to its exterior plan after hearing complaints from area residents. Owners also released a statement saying they hope to become a mainstay in the neighborhood for years to come.

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