UPPER EAST SIDE, NY — For years, Upper East Siders have observed growing numbers of vacant storefronts in the neighborhood. Then the pandemic hit.
The coronavirus threatens to unleash a retail apocalypse on New York City, having already shuttered scores of beloved neighborhood eateries and other businesses facing unfulfillable rent payments and a lack of aid from the federal government.
Before the crisis, vacancies were already mounting — a trend that Upper East Side City Councilmember Ben Kallos blames partly on landlords "demanding rents that only national chains and banks could pay."
To survey the scope of the crisis on the Upper East Side, Patch walked along Second Avenue between 60th and 90th streets this week, tallying each vacant storefront.
All told, 66 stores sat empty along that stretch — not counting active construction sites or businesses that shut down during the pandemic but pledged to reopen at a later date. That's a rate of more than two vacant storefronts per block.
The grim list includes some neighborhood institutions like the Beekman Theatre, which closed abruptly last fall, and the Writing Room restaurant, which shut its doors this month due to the pandemic. It also includes lesser-known places like Eneslow Shoes, a cobbler near East 78th Street, or Sedgbury Cleaners, north of East 71st.
"I'd like to thank you for using our service," reads a handwritten note taped inside Sedgbury's window. "We sincerely wish the best for you and your loved ones."
Some stretches have been harder-hit than others. The west side of Second Avenue between 77th and 79th streets has more empty storefronts than open businesses, for example, while the two blocks between 74th and 76th streets has no vacancies at all.
Proposals to solve the crisis
In an interview, Kallos said he's taken steps to mitigate the trend, from helping co-op boards identify retail clients to successfully pushing the city to create retail spaces in new affordable housing developments.
He also served as a prime sponsor on a law enacted last year that will create a citywide database to track storefront vacancies. The database is set to go live in February 2021.
Some action may need to come from outside the city. Lincoln Restler, a former mayoral aide now running for City Council in Brooklyn, made this month with his "Lower NYC Rent" proposal, which would mandate that landlords lower the prices of properties if the sites remain unoccupied for more than three months.
Kallos called the plan appealing, but noted that the state legislature would need to pass legislation to enact it.
Other possibilities include a "mom-and-pop" rezoning, which limits the size of new storefronts in an effort to protect small shops. Gale Brewer pushed through such a rezoning on the Upper West Side in 2012, while serving on the City Council, and Kallos, who is running to succeed Brewer as Manhattan Borough President in 2021, said he wants to expand it borough-wide.
There's no doubting the urgency of the crisis, which Kallos said threatens the fabric of the neighborhood, especially as locally-owned shops get replaced by corporate chains.
"No one's coming to New York City for a big-box store," he said.