The Upper West Side is sharply divided over a rezoning proposal designed to protect small businesses’ storefronts as the debate advances through the city bureaucracy, reaching a public city planning hearing on Wednesday.
At a four-hour hearing of the New York City Planning Commission, locals weighed in on the proposal, which was passed nearly unanimously last month by Community Board 7.
If passed, the rezoning will limit storefronts along sections of Columbus and Amsterdam avenues to 40 feet and bank storefronts along Columbus, Amsterdam, and Broadway to 25 feet in order to preserve the small-business feel that has historically characterized the Upper West Side.
The proposal has garnered the support of a half-dozen local politicians, but many landlords and real estate agents took issue with what they have characterized as unnecessary and potentially harmful regulation.
“This proposed zoning is both simple and flexible,” City Council member Gale Brewer, who, as the Upper West Side representative, has been a leading proponent of the proposal, said at the hearing, held before city planning votes in June. “This proposal will ensure the look and feel of the Upper West Side for the future.”
Brewer presented the commissioners with a letter of testimony signed by 76 small businesses, emphasizing that the proposed zoning would support a balance between large and small businesses, not rid the neighborhood of the larger retail stores all together.
When one of the commissioners pointed out that 93 percent of the storefronts are already in accordance with the proposed rezoning, Brewer responded that the rezoning would prevent that percentage from dropping in the future, which could put the Upper West Side small business culture at risk.
“We’re not asking anyone to move, all we’re saying is we need some balance,” Brewer said.
Opponents of the proposal said that the economy dictates the types of businesses in demand and that the rezoning would add an extra layer of unwanted bureaucracy.
“There’s really no need for this proposal,” Michael Slattery, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said, adding that the streetscapes “transform in response to the market.”
Representatives from the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, which covers the stretch of Columbus from 67th to 82nd streets, also submitted a letter of testimony against the rezoning to the commissioners.
“Quite simply, these new restrictions will harm our businesses because they will seriously impair our abilities to negotiate with our landlords and inhibit our attempts to expand and grow,” the letter stated. “By putting this rezoning in place, you will hurt the small businesses that this regulation is intended to protect, and in the case of Columbus Avenue, it is already protected by the fact that it is entirely within the Historic District and subject to those rules.”
Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes Manhattan Valley, said she recognized the concerns but did not see “any real standing in them.”
“This, I believe, is a forward-looking restriction that ensures that we have that vibrancy of streetscape,” Mark Diller, chair of CB7, which represents the Upper West Side, said. “People will want to walk down our blocks.”
Representatives for Council member Inez Dickens; Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer; and Assembly members Linda Rosenthal and Danny O’Donnell all testified in favor of the proposal on behalf of the officials.
Mel Wymore, a former chair of CB7 running for Brewer’s seat, called the large retail stores an “invasive species” that has the disrupted the balance of large and small businesses on the Upper West Side.
“We’re right at the point where the pendulum has swung a little bit too far,” Wymore said. “We’ve become victims of our own success.”
One Upper West Side resident, Alexander Medwedew, who said he is “not paid by anybody,” independently organized a petition that gained 300 signatures from other locals. He said that the balance has been self-maintained in the neighborhood.
“We don’t need the zoning,” he said. “A lot of people like the big businesses.”
While he respected that the proposal’s proponents have been “well-organized” and have received support from elected officials, he said he believed most of the public does not recognize storefront zoning as an issue.
“Many don’t care. There’s no reason to hate them [big businesses]. They’re just businesses,” Medwedew said. “Small businesses have problems, and this doesn’t help them.”
If passed by the Commission by June 5, the proposal will go through to the City Council, who will then make the final vote.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said that a representative for former CB7 chair and City Council candidate Helen Rosenthal attended the hearing. In fact, a representative for Assembly member Linda Rosenthal was in attendance. Spectator regrets the error.