Once you walk the streets of Chelsea with Justin Levinson, you might never look at them the same way again.
Levinson, a freelance developer, spent six months online — and on foot — mapping out the location and quantity of empty storefronts throughout Manhattan. He wound up underscoring the bleak retail landscape.
“Oh, that’s new,” he said of Foragers eatery and market on Eighth Avenue and West 22nd Street. But as soon as he started pointing them out, vacant storefronts seemed to be everywhere.
After attending the one-day New York City School of Data conference in 2012, Levinson learned that much city-related information is available online, if one only knows how to access it. Having long been interested in the more blighted parts of the city, Levinson created tools that helped him sort through Department of City Planning data. He learned to pinpoint vacant storefronts and the owners of the buildings that house them.
Since his map and corresponding website Vacant New York have come to people’s attention, Levinson has heard from more than 100 people with comments and corrections. “This one guy emailed me and he’s a chef,” Levinson said. “He said ‘I’ve worked my way up and I want to open my own place but I can’t find one … that I can afford with decent foot traffic.’ Which is insane because we have so much empty property.”
Who’s to blame?? Levinson emphasized that there is no one party that is responsible.
“I’m not trying to point fingers,” he said. Instead, he listed sky-high rent, gentrification, and said, “It’s very easy to construct this narrative of greedy landlords. It really is over-simplifying the issue. They’re operating within a system with a bunch of rules, a bunch of incentives.”
Based on Levinson’s map, Madison Avenue is among the areas with the fewest empty storefronts. Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue BID, is not surprised to hear this.
“In the first half of 2016, 18 new business opened up on Madison Avenue between 57th and 86th Street,” Bauer said. “When you look at the amount that have opened and you see the types of stores and the type of investment that’s taking place here, you see that there’s tremendous interest.”
At the other end of the spectrum on this map: the TriBeCa/SoHo area, which is not doing as well. On Broadway between west Houston and Canal Streets, 16 storefronts are marked as empty.
Mark Dicus, executive director of the SoHo Broadway Initiative, described the situation as a “fundamental shift in brick-and-mortar retail.” However, he is optimistic and mentioned several stores that were doing well in SoHo, like Stance, a luxury sock and underwear retailer, and athletic-wear stores like Lululemon and Under Armour. Nike is also planning to open a new outlet at 529 Broadway within the year.
“I think you’re seeing a change in the market,” Dicus said. “People are still trying to see what works here.”
Levinson is well aware that his map may have missing pieces or errors. A project like Vacant New York is by nature a “moving target,” as he described it, because stores open and close constantly.
Plus, the data itself is hard to track down for stores being rented out by owner, with just a sign and phone number in the window, as opposed to being listed on a large broker’s website. Still more storefronts are empty but don’t have a “for lease” sign on display. Levinson didn’t include those because it’s unclear what their status is.
It’s not his full-time job, but Levinson plans to continue updating Vacant New York and responding to comments. “I like seeing the way the city moves,” he said. “I grew up next to the city, so I didn’t have this starry-eyed ‘oh my God, it’s New York City.’ I like to always know we’re doing what we can to make it as livable as possible.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at email@example.com