Could a New York zoning proposal revive neighborhood charm?

Could limiting the size of new retail spaces in effect re-design an urban neighborhood--or restore its character to that of a fabled past when quirky products and shops were valued?
Written by Reena Jana on

On New York City's Upper West Side, film stills from the 1998 romantic comedy You've Got Mail sit in the windows of Cafe Lalo, a quaint neighborhood eating place. If you've ever seen the movie, you'll recognize this cafe on West 83rd Street from its old-school wooden details and the trees out front that are perpetually wrapped in cheery Christmas lights.

If you live on the Upper West Side, you'll also recognize that the You've Got Mail plot--in which a big-box retailer threatens the existence of a charming local book shop--is more than just fiction. Behemoth chain stores have steadily been moving in since You've Got Mail hit theaters 14 years ago, and closing signs on the doors of tinier, long-standing boutiques seem to pop up just as quickly.

To be fair, many of the national brands that occupy large retail spaces in this Manhattan neighborhood are well-loved, or at least well-used by residents. (Full disclosure: I live on the Upper West Side, and I happily buy at the Trader Joe's, Staples, and Apple stores on Broadway, grateful for the convenience and abundant offerings of these national brands, just as I frequent one-of-a-kind shops such as the West Side Kids toy store on Amsterdam Avenue). But as a report published in the February 3 print edition of the New York Times states, a new zoning proposal could limit large retailers from entering the Upper West Side in the future. Some believe the proposal could even serve as a model for other urban neighborhoods (although as the Times reports, New York's planning department says it does not intend to do so).

As reporter Joseph Berger sums up the initiative,

The proposal would amend the neighborhood’s zoning to limit the ground-floor width of all new stores to 40 feet on two major commercial thoroughfares — Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues — and banks to 25 feet on those two avenues, and on Broadway as well. The 40-foot number was chosen because most are already narrower than that, and 25 feet was regarded by officials as a “workable width” for ground-floor banks.

Some of the design effects such a proposal could have on a neighborhood--in New York and beyond--could include

  • more retail spaces that would take the places of large bank retail outlets in particular, which are closed at night and therefore don't bring potential buyers to the neighborhood as a retailer would (in essence, smaller new shops could help "redesign" the foot traffic of an area)
  • unique product designs offered by smaller retailers could find more customers
  • big-box stores may try to redesign layouts to work within the new zoning regulations

Skeptics, such as Mitchell L. Moss, who teaches urban planning at New York University, believe that the large national retailers on the Upper West Side simply cater to a current dominant demographic (i.e. wealthy professionals), which can afford the neighborhood's hefty rents and apartment price tags. And many of the newest housing built in the area are large high-rises that can also house huge retail spaces. This is in contrast, he suggests, to the Upper West Side's former incarnation as a neighborhood full of brownstones and pre-War apartments that traditionally housed writers, editors, and other creative types.

But supporters, such as New York City councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, believe that small, local shops are what define the area's culture and should dominate as they did in the past. “Stores are the soul of the neighborhood,” Brewer said to the Times. “Small pharmacies, shoe stores, they mean everything to us.”

And other observers believe that high rents and rising commercial taxes are the real reason that big national chain stores are so present on the Upper West Side, because they simply have the resources to.

However (and this was not mentioned in the Times article), some mall-type chain stores are also likely threatened by the cost of operating in this section of Manhattan. A sprawling Gap on the corner of Broadway and West 86th Street just closed in January. If the zoning proposal goes through (it needs to be approved by New York's Department of City Planning and City Council), the Gap could very well be replaced by a smaller, less-known occupant or occupants. And such an intriguing turnover could perhaps set a precedent for other cities, too.

Image: Sarah Ackerman/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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