Community Board 3 Panel Looks at Special Zoning District to Bolster Small Business

chain stores collage

In the past few years, Community Board 3 has been studying potential ways to curb the proliferation of chain stores and to help struggling independent businesses. Now CB3’s economic development committee is inching toward a proposal for a possible Special Purpose District to protect existing small operators and to foster a better environment for small startups.

Special zoning districts are, according to the Department of City Planning, meant to achieve specific planning and urban design objectives in defined areas with unique characteristics. On the Lower East Side, for example, limits on the size of retail establishments and the types of allowable businesses could be part of an eventual proposal. The community board would not come up with a plan on its own, but hopes to persuade city officials to launch an official study of the neighborhood to determine whether a special district is feasible.

In the past month, Bill LoSasso, chairman of the economic development committee, presented a very early draft of a position paper that will make its way to the full board. He’s hoping a final draft will be available by the end of the summer.  It will be shared with local elected officials to determine their support for the idea and then probably forwarded to the Planning Department.

The document makes the point that products and services on the Lower East Side and in the East Village are increasingly unaffordable to a large segment of the local community. As small businesses have closed in recent years, the draft states, retail diversity has suffered. Among the issues raised: high commercial rents, high real estate taxes, competition from “destination” nightlife businesses and a decline in daytime foot traffic.

One example the committee has studied is the Upper West Side, where the city in 2012 limited the amount of sidewalk space ground-floor commercial tenants on sections and Amsterdam and Columbus avenues could consume. The proposal, with strong advocacy from former City Council member Gale Brewer (now Borough President), was designed to stop the spread of big banks.

At one point, the CB3 committee considered designating an area in Community District 3 for the proposed special district. But now board members are thinking in terms of asking City Planning to look at the entire community district, evaluate the most problematic areas and to propose solutions. Possible remedies mentioned in early conversations include: limits on the hours of businesses in certain categories and limits on the size of businesses.  Some cities, most prominently San Francisco, have instituted strict limits on chain stores in some neighborhoods. It’s a major question whether this type of solution would be politically viable in New York.

The conversation will continue at next month’s meeting of the economic development committee. We’ll let you know the time and place when the meeting agendas are released.