Bill proposes vacant storefront registry

A 2017 study conducted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer counted 188 empty storefronts on Broadway in Manhattan. A new bill would create a citywide tracking system for commercial vacancies. Photo: Steven Strasser
Council legislation would require city to track retail vacancies
By Michael Garofalo

Though Manhattan residents and elected officials have long bemoaned the prevalence of vacant storefronts lining the borough’s commercial corridors, the city does not collect official statistics on retail occupancy rates. This could change under a bill now being considered by the City Council.

The legislation, introduced by Upper West Side Council Member Helen Rosenthal, would require property owners to notify the city’s Department of Small Business Services when a storefront has been vacant for more than 90 days. The data collected by the agency, including the length of and reasons for each vacancy, would be made available in an online registry. Owners who fail to register would face weekly fines of $1,000.

A second bill sponsored by Rosenthal would require Department of Small Business Services to maintain a public database encompassing every storefront in the city that would disclose information on each space’s location, size, monthly rent, current use and occupancy status, among other information.

Supporters are hopeful that additional data will allow policymakers to better understand the various factors driving commercial vacancies and formulate solutions to address the issue.

“This database will identify vacancy trends throughout the city, spot areas where vacancies are rapidly increasing and identify specific property owners and managers who demonstrate a pattern of forcing out small business,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said at a March 18 hearing on the legislation held by the Council’s small business committee. “Additionally, it will be a resource for small business owners looking for new space. Everyone I have talked to about this issue agrees we need a database to track the problem and to develop effective responses.”

Improving data collection

In the absence of a citywide database, current analysis of retail vacancy trends relies on broad data collected by the real estate industry and informal surveys conducted by elected officials and others. A 2017 study conducted by Rosenthal’s office, for example, found a commercial vacancy rate of 12 percent in her Upper West Side district. The same year, Brewer’s office canvassed the entire length of Broadway in Manhattan, finding 188 empty storefronts along the corridor’s 244 blocks.

But analyzing the scale and underlying causes of vacancy on a citywide level, experts say, requires uniformly collected data.

“The underlying causes of these issues are complex and vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, corridor to corridor, and property to property,” Gregg Bishop, commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services, said at the hearing. Bishop continued, “One of the things we’re very focused on is getting data that’s consistent and reliable so we understand what the vacancy issue is in the different commercial corridors.”

Bishop told Council Members the agency supports efforts to improve data collection on retail vacancies as the city develops responses to the issue. Among those efforts is Mayor Bill de Blasio’s current campaign calling on state legislators to enact a tax penalizing landlords who own storefronts that remain empty for long periods of time.

“We agree that more data is needed to better fully understand the scale of commercial vacancies and address them,” Bishop said at the hearing. “To that end, the administration will continue to actively work with you on a vacancy registry. Such a registry would be an important part of our effort to pass a vacancy tax in Albany.”

The Council also heard testimony on a number of other bills aimed at combatting high retail vacancy rates and commercial tenant displacement, which are commonly attributed to a confluence of factors including the rise of online shopping, speculative pricing by landlords and rising monthly rents, which increased 44 percent in Manhattan from 2006 to 2016.

One bill, sponsored by Council Member Mark Levine, would require the city to provide legal services to small business tenants facing eviction. Another, introduced by Rosenthal, would require the city to provide small businesses with training and technical support on marketing and expanding e-commerce operations.