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The Anti-Chain Gang

Here in the world of preserving worthy buildings, there’s a question that often comes up. “Preserving buildings is well and good,” people say. “But what about preserving the personalities and pursuits that occupy those buildings?”

That’s the next frontier. For the most part, meatpackers are mostly gone from the Meatpacking District, few struggling artists still paint in Soho lofts, and bookstores and neighborhood shops have virtually disappeared from Bleecker Street west of 7th Avenue South. The East Village is struggling with many of the same issues, but here a smart and scrappy coalition of activists are looking at ways to preserve the distinctive variety of businesses and organizations that line our streets, so many of which have the homey feel of being created by our neighbors and friends.

At 11th Street and Avenue A, the 7-Eleven under construction has galvanized anti-chain activists. Photo from no7eleven.wordpress.com.
At 11th Street and Avenue A, the 7-Eleven under construction has galvanized anti-chain activists.

Yesterday the East Village Community Coalition kicked off its “Taking Action Against Formula Retail” campaign, which advocates for new local regulations to discourage chain stores – a.k.a. “formula retail” – from locating here. Clearly many East Villagers would rather encounter Saifee Hardware than Home Depot, The Bean rather than Starbucks, bodegas rather than chain stores like 7-Eleven. But as residents and businesses alike struggle to deal with punishingly high rents, it’s not clear how to keep out national or global chains with deep pockets.

Yet from San Francisco to Ogunquit, Maine, localities are finding ways. EVCC has culled the ideas that it thinks will work best here, recommending: 1) the creation of a special East Village District that regulates formula retail via specified square footage and store frontage sizes, community review, allowable areas and types throughout the district, and 2) implementing conditional formula retail use on current commercial overlays, whereby formula retail is restricted to the main avenues and prohibited from side streets.

A related example already exists in New York City: three commercial corridors on the Upper West Side rezoned as “Special Districts” in June 2012. In these districts, new zoning limits storefront sizes to promote retail diversity and to keep banks and residential lobbies from dominating the street.

GVSHP is an enthusiastic partner in the effort to take action against formula retail. Stay tuned here, as well as at the EVCC, to keep up to date – and put November 12 on your calendar for a community workshop on the effort. Details to come.

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