Electeds discuss plans to curb vacancies


Gale Brewer at the Community Free Democrats meeting: “When you lose a store, you feel like your soul is hurting.” Photo: Jason Cohen
City and state officials on the storefront registry bill — and taxing landlords of empty commercial properties

By Jason Cohen

Elected officials representing the city and the state presented plans last week that could curb and possibly eliminate commercial vacancies.

On March 28, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer spoke at a Community Free Democrats meeting, where she laid out policy and legislation about combating empty storefronts and a representative for Senator Robert Jackson discussed a bill that would tax landlords of vacant commercial properties.

Brewer is co-sponsoring a bill with Council Member Helen Rosenthal that would require the Small Business Services to establish a vacant storefront registry. There would be a public online searchable database of storefront properties in the city, including information about each such property’s location, size, commercial use, availability and monthly rent, as well as contact information for each property.

Owners would be required to submit this information to SBS at least annually and every time a commercial property becomes vacant. SBS would also be required to establish a hotline and website to report noncompliant storefront property owners.

Brewer told the West Side Spirit that she expects the bill to pass in early spring.

“As New Yorkers, we will be able to monitor local businesses and make sure owners are in compliance,” Brewer said. “I’m sure this is not loved by owners, but this is incredibly important.”

Brewer explained that she has been fighting to solve the vacancy issue for more than 30 years. This isn’t a new problem, just one that has gotten worse, she said.

In fact, after speaking to colleagues in other boroughs, she feels this high commercial vacancy issue is primarily in Manhattan. Last summer, she and her staff walked from the top of Broadway to the bottom and found 188 empty storefronts.

While she acknowledged that some stores are closing due to high rent or online commerce, landlords who leave vacancies for an extended amount of time need to be held accountable, she stressed.

“It’s frustrating. When you lose a store, you feel like your soul is hurting,” she said.

Meanwhile, on the state level, Chris Nickell, deputy chief of staff for Senator Robert Jackson, spoke about what Jackson is doing to solve the problem. Nickell told the attendees that Jackson is in the early stages of crafting a bill that would tax landlords who have commercial vacant properties. Nickell told the Spirit that the plan is to follow a model used by San Francisco, which implemented a commercial vacancy tax in March.

According to Nickell, the senator will consult with advocates from across the district and the city to determine the best way to structure the legislation. He explained that once the senator returns to the district from Albany, the hope is to hammer out the draft of the bill by the end of the month.

While it is still too early to know who will be taxed and how much, the hope is this bill will prevent stores from being vacant for extended periods of time, Nickell explained.

“The goal with the tax isn’t to generate revenue,” he said.

Residents at the meeting commended the officials on making progress to curb the commercial vacancy issue. Linda Alexander, co-chair of the Business Consumer Issues Committee of Community Board 7, said Brewer’s bill to create a registry is a step in the right direction.

“Each situation has a different back story and hopefully if we put together this document and we document the empty stores, we’ll be able to work with the landlords, work with the city and find out how we can solve the problem together,” she said.

Beth Krieger, one of the co-founders of the grassroots organization UWS Save Our Stores, is in favor of a list of vacant businesses. Seeing this type of progress will hopefully lead to positive change in the community and economy, she said.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Krieger said. “I think it should have been done a long time ago.”