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Opposition Mounts Against UWS Mom-and-Pop Business Zoning Proposal

By Leslie Albrecht | March 6, 2012 1:03pm | Updated on March 7, 2012 8:04am
A new zoning proposal would limit the size of banks on the Upper West Side. Locals say oversized banks are robbing their neighborhood of character.
A new zoning proposal would limit the size of banks on the Upper West Side. Locals say oversized banks are robbing their neighborhood of character.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Community Board 7 voted Tuesday night in favor of new zoning rules meant to preserve the Upper West Side's disappearing mom-and-pop stores, despite the fact that the plan to save struggling small businesses has brought out some big-money opposition.

Upper West Siders say they have been receiving telemarketing calls gathering opinions on the zoning proposal. Residents who have taken the roughly 20-minute phone survey called it a "push poll," with questions that seemed slanted to prompt negative reactions to the retail zoning proposal.

The zoning plan would limit the size of banks on Broadway and keep storefronts on Amsterdam and Columbus avenues less than 40 feet wide. It requires Planning Commission and City Council approval to take effect.

The city's Planning Department unveiled the new retail zoning initiative after Upper West Siders lamented for years that their neighborhood's once lively streets were being deadened by too many oversized banks and chain stores.

A host of business and real estate interests — including neighborhood groups such as the Columbus Avenue BID and Lincoln Square BID — have lined up against the zoning plan, saying it would stifle economic development. The Real Estate Board of New York and the New York Bankers Association have written letters opposing the initiative to the Planning Commission.

It was unclear who was behind the phone survey. But it seemed to be a sign that some opponents were ramping up efforts, said Bob Botfeld, an Upper West Side resident who took the phone survey.

"It's a very expensive political campaign to stop the zoning," said Botfeld, a member of Three Parks Independent Democrats, which supports the zoning plan. "It’s clearly an effort to influence opinion against [the zoning proposal]. This must be costing tens of thousands of dollars."

The telemarketer who questioned Botfeld said she was part of a team of 30 pollsters from a Florida company, On Target Marketing, who had been calling Upper West Side residents for a week, he said. On Target Marketing could not be reached for comment.

Botfeld and others who took the survey said it started by asking for opinions on Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Public Advocate Bill DiBlasio, City Council speaker Christine Quinn, former mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, Borough President Scott Stringer and Upper West Side City Councilwoman Gale Brewer.

Then survey respondents were asked if they were familiar with the retail zoning proposal. They were presented with roughly 15 negative comments about the retail zoning plan, and asked whether they agreed or disagreed. Survey respondents were also given the option to say they thought the comment was inaccurate.

The list of statements included arguments such as: "This is just another example of government telling us where we can shop and what kind of stores we need" and "Co-ops and condos will be hurt and will need to raise their monthly fees because they will lose income from their retail tenants," according to notes survey respondents jotted down.

Other statements said cultural institutions such as the JCC of Manhattan and Symphony Space could be harmed by the proposal, as well as beloved neighborhood icons including Popover Cafe and the independent baby gear store Albee Baby.

"The wording was very prejudicial," said Elizabeth Kellner, a supporter of the retail zoning initiative who took the survey.

After the list of negative comments about the zoning proposal, survey respondents were presented with statements on landmarking and preservation issues, then given a handful of seemingly positive comments about the retail zoning proposal and asked whether they agreed with them.

Respondents were quizzed on demographic information, including age, education level, religion, how long they had lived in Manhattan and whether they rented or owned — but they weren't asked for income levels, Kellner said.

Nick Prigo, a Community Board 7 member who favors the zoning proposal, said he was glad to take the survey and considered the high-priced public opinion gathering a good sign.

"When someone's willing to spend the big bucks to do that kind of thing, it means they're worried it's actually going to happen," Prigo said. "I think it's a sign that they think they're losing."

Meanwhile, representatives for the New York Bankers Association and the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums said their groups weren't involved.

"We wouldn't have the capacity for something like that," said Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums.

Rothman's group opposes the retail zoning proposal because they worry it would limit what type of tenants co-ops and condos could put in ground-floor retail spaces — an important source of revenue for co-ops and condos, she said.

The Real Estate Board of New York didn't respond to questions about the phone poll, but released a joint statement Monday with several other business groups reasserting its opposition to the retail zoning initiative.

"During such trying economic times, the last thing we should do as a city is to regulate business, discourage investments in new endeavors and deter job growth and tax revenue," Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce,  said in the statement.