Small Stores Thrive in Landmark Districts

It may come as little surprise that many people prefer the vibrancy of a historic neighborhood over the sterile monolithic towers and gargantuan chain stores that dominate all-too-much of the cityscape.  Besides the incredible architecture and charm, these are walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods popular with all ages.  But are they good for small businesses and retail vitality?  Evidence seems to suggest yes.

You may have seen that this week we released the results of a survey conducted over several months looking at retail vacancy rates in the East Village, covering both landmarked areas and non-landmarked areas . The survey found that the percentage of retail vacancies in landmarked areas of the neighborhood were less than half the rate in non-landmarked areas – 7% vs. more than 15%.  From the oldest continuously operated saloon, to the newest record store, the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District has it all.

The survey was conducted by the great team at East Village Community Coalition, with mapping support from our friends at the Cooper Square Committee, while Village Preservation did the deep dive on the historic districts, to make sure we got it right.

The results of the survey were consistent throughout the neighborhood – landmarked streets had consistently lower retail vacancy rates than non-landmarked ones, which sometimes ran as high as 31%. By contrast, the East Village’s three landmarked districts encompassing about 400 buildings had 242 retail spaces with 17 vacancies and a fairly consistent retail vacancy rate of about 7%. The East Village overall has about 2,200 buildings with 1649 retail spaces and 250 vacancies, or a 15% retail vacancy rate. The findings of this new apples-to-apples survey undercuts claims by the Real Estate Board of New York in a study it released last year attempting to imply that landmarking led to higher rates of retail vacancies.

Of course we were very pleased to see that in the landmarked parts of the East Village, retail vacancies are consistently lower. Interestingly, it is in the parts of the neighborhood with more chain stores like 14th Street where some of the highest retail vacancy rates can be found. While no study like this is conclusive, it certainly shows that historic districts and landmarked areas not only can but do thrive, even in this tough climate for retail in New York City.

This data clearly undercuts the narrative that real estate lobbyists and others would peddle that landmarking somehow hampers or hurts small businesses. Retail spaces in the East Village’s historic districts are largely occupied by small, independent businesses, many of whom have been there for years or even decades. This is yet another indication of how landmarked areas of New York City are among the most stable, healthy, vibrant parts of the city, and far from hurting local residents or businesses, landmark designation can help preserve and protect what New Yorkers love most about their communities.

We walked the streets of the Historic Districts pictured in blue on the map and looked at every location.  The St. Marks Historic District was easy.  The only non-residential space in that district is the NYU Steinhardt School building at 34 Stuyvesant, which we did not include as retail space for this survey.  Similarly, we did not count the occupied office storefront of 111 Second Avenue, also an NYU property. We did count the NewYorkers Foodmarket grocery store, of course.

Although vibrant filled and occupied, we also did not count the many theaters on East 4th Street such as Duo Theatre, Teatro Circulo, Ellen Stewart Theatre, Downtown Art, La Mama, New York Theatre Workshop or NY Theatre as occupied retail spaces for the purposes of this survey, although such numbers would have further reduced the vacancy rate in the landmarked districts.

We also did not include the Anthology Film Archives or the recently opened Brandt Foundation as occupied retail spaces, as they are cultural institutions rather than retail spaces.  Both are located in the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, and thus if we did include them, the retail vacancy rates for those landmarked areas would have been even lower.

We also did not include the religious institutions in the districts as counting toward occupied retail space for our purposes, such as St Stanislaus Church, Middle Collegiate Church, CityLight Church, Sixth Street Community Synagogue, Middle Collegiate Church, Iglesia De Sufrir Orthodox, or Cathedral Second Avenue Church.

If a place was not in operation, but there were work permits and signs of work by a retail tenant, we did not count it as vacant. If it was empty and there were work permits by the landlord but no retail tenant, we counted it as vacant.

For example, 300 East 5th Street was under construction and enclosed in a shed during the time of the survey, but with a work permit by the business owner and an imminent opening, so we did not count it as vacant. Since then the storefront has been revealed with a design more in keeping with the historic character.

As part of our ongoing efforts to protect and promote small businesses, we also runs a Business of the Month program, and have been advocating for passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and adoption of Formula Retail Zoning, which would limit the size, concentration, and placement of chain stores in areas which want such limitations.

April 19, 2019