Thursday, March 21, 2013

The purpose of an Economic Development strategy

Is the purpose of the CB3 Economic Development Committee to fill all the storefronts in the neighborhood, or is it to encourage commerce that serves the community and prevent commerce that harms the community? They are not necessarily consistent goals -- they can be, in fact, contrary goals.  

The goal of filling storefronts regardless of community needs seems to me to serve only landlords. It's not a local labor issue, for example. Stores in the East Village are not a significant driver of local labor. The EV is a residential neighborhood and, like most New Yorkers, residents work outside the neighborhood. What labor is here isn't in storefronts -- public schools, music schools, theaters. Nightlife employs a few locals, but storefronts are not and will not be a major driver of local labor. 

Landlords represent less than 1% of our community. And many landlords -- most of the large ones --don't even live here. Are landlords defaulting or abandoning their properties? I haven't seen that. It's more likely that storefronts are vacant because the landlord is demanding an exorbitant rent, not because no one would rent it. 

Back in the 1970's when I first moved to Loisaida, there was little commerce and virtually no money here. The storefronts were either occupied residentially, or by a social club or simply vacant. I vividly remember a friend one day having the idea of sewing spandex shorts -- spandex was new then. She found an empty storefront on 7th Street off A, and without asking anyone, set up a sewing machine in it. In a few days dozens of local kids - five, seven, eight years old -- were all running in and out of her dark little storefront helping her sew spandex shorts. A little piece of heaven. 

A month ago I presented the NO 7-Eleven program to Community Board 3's Economic Development Committee. They raised several intelligent and important questions -- on what basis would a community board accept one formula store and reject another? Can 7-Eleven offer a good deal to the franchisee or a better option to a bodega owner?  But one comment puzzled me: "There are many vacant storefronts that corporate formula stores could fill." I just don't see why vacant stores should be a concern for the community board in a neighborhood full of money. It's almost unbelievable just how much money there is in the EV. And landlords are reaping that money hand over fist. Residential rents are astronomical. So why worry about filling the landlords' storefronts? 

There are commercial problems in this neighborhood. The students and young singles who bring most of that money enjoy living here in large part because of the nightlife. But older residents complain about the noise and disruption from bars. For a while bars were replacing local services and it became harder to find those services. Older residents were afraid that they might lose their supermarkets. 

Those are genuine community concerns, genuine community conflicts that require some kind of oversight and balancing. I can imagine a community board strategy of filling all the vacant stores with local services that are welcomed by the community. But simply to ensure that storefronts be filled doesn't seem to me to merit community board effort or concern.

The situation in Chinatown, for example, is quite different. There, in the older Toisanese community, property owners are having trouble meeting the real estate taxes, with so many rent regulated residential tenants. Their commerce doesn't have the high volume of the recent Fujianese immigrant commerce on East Broadway, so they often look towards higher-end, more tourist-friendly commerce. That's a fragile program. But the EV, with Daddy NYU supplying new renters every year, the worry is not how to fill stores, but how to fill them with something that best serves the community. If there's no oversight or resistance to formula stores, giant corporations will answer that from afar. 

No comments: