Cities are magnificent to behold. They glitter at night and inspire with giant modern buildings. When you get closer though, many lack the uniqueness we seek. Close up, your experiences in one are much the same as another. Over 12% of the storefronts in cities are unoccupied. In New York City alone, there are 1,332 empty store fronts near Broadway. Dead space hurts not only the city but our enjoyment of life.

Gone are many independent businesses. The record shop, the collectible store, a locally owned fashion boutique, a bookstore, the art supply store. NYC, for example, is losing over 2,000 locally owned storefronts a year. In their place comes national brands such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, CVS, ATT and BestBuy. Even worse, nothing replaces the former local stores leaving empty storefronts. It all contributes to creating a city of same. Places that no longer hold the appeal and uniqueness we seek.

There are reasons for all this. The most often cited one is that the suburbs are creeping into the city. People live in the suburbs where ditto shopping centers exist filled with national brands. These suburban dwellers often work in the city. What do they want and look for in commerce and food outlets? Major brands. It’s different for the city dweller or visitor, they want more.

Another prime reason is that small locally owned businesses have been pushed out by higher rents or their low-profile buildings are torn down. Driving this is institutional investors who buy blocks of older buildings. They seek national tenants, moving rents to higher levels and replacing older buildings with new mixed used developments.

Even in the best most prosperous cities, you find empty store fronts. Ones not suitable for national brands but too expensive for local business owners. They languish like infilled promises along what could be interesting areas of a city. Institutional investors leave storefronts at high rent levels even if no tenants are found. The reason is the higher posted rents look better to banks for future lending.

Are there any possible solutions and strategies to return the interest and uniqueness to our cities? 

The most important is for cities to recognize that appeal generated by the diversity of local business is as important to a city as attracting the Amazons of the world. Incentives should be devoted to this end. More lenient building codes for older buildings is a good start. Another novel solution is creating retail incubator zones. In these zones, cities could subsidize lower rents for locally owned stores. This would make business entry easier. Demonstration store fronts are also a good idea. Ones where a new launch can create display shops for new products. Ones being developed locally. This could run the range from fashion to high tech. All these things would create an ever changing landscape of exploring and discovery for city visitors.

How to you fund all this?

Three novel approaches that have been suggested by a recent NY Times editorial include. A tax on chronically vacant store fronts. Ones left intentionally empty for institutional investors and large property owners. A tax on high end national retailers who have store fronts in a city. The requirement that new large retail developments include some low rent spaces. This approach is already being used in the fair and low income housing arena.

Our cities do not have to be “interest deserts.” Everyone benefits from diversity in business, the local mixed with the nation. Interest mixed with the everyday essentials of living. The uniqueness of retail offerings that are every changing that help create the spirit of life’s enjoyment. 

David Young

Resources on this subject:
 “Why NY is full of empty Storefronts” NYT Editorial
“NY’s Vanishing Shops and Storefronts” by Edward Helmore
“Jerry Ohlinger, Colorful Film Memorabilia Dies at 75” by Neil Genzlinger