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Columbus Avenue BID Says Mom and Pop Retail Zoning is Bad for Business

Polarn O. Pyret, a Swedish kids' clothing retailer with a socially-conscious vibe, opened recently on Columbus Avenue near West 81st Street.
Polarn O. Pyret, a Swedish kids' clothing retailer with a socially-conscious vibe, opened recently on Columbus Avenue near West 81st Street.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Columbus Avenue businesses are thriving and don't need the city's new retail zoning plan, thank you very much.

That's the message from the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, which announced Tuesday that the last vacant storefront in the BID's 15-block retail and dining corridor was rented recently, bringing its occupancy rate to 100 percent.

The vacant space at 446 Columbus Ave., which was once Calle Ocho restaurant, was recently leased by an Italian eatery after being empty for almost a year, the BID announced.

The news comes as the City Planning Commission is poised to hold a public hearing April 11 on whether to create new restrictions on retail zoning on the Upper West Side that would limit the size of stores in an effort to protect the neighborhood's disappearing mom and pop businesses.

Some business and real estate groups — such as the Real Estate Board of New York and New York Bankers Association — say the proposed zoning laws would stymie growth and even push out longtime businesses.

The Columbus Avenue BID is against the zoning changes, and has asked to be exempted from the new laws, which would affect Columbus Avenue between West 72nd and 87th streets.

"We're 100 percent rented and now they're trying to change the parameters by which we've always thrived and we don't understand why," said BID executive director Barbara Adler. "We've always found our own way and we've always had a mix of interesting stores and restaurants. We don't want to be tampered with."

Adler listed several other recently filled vacancies on the strip as proof that Columbus Avenue doesn't need the city's help to prosper.

The German clothing boutique Oska opened in September at West 75th Street; Rubicon Property recently replaced Maxilla & Mandible at West 81st Street; Paper Source will move into the space once occupied by Therapie at West 74th Street; Cafe Tallulah will take over the long-vacant restaurant slot at West 71st Street; and a restaurant called 78 Below is moving into the P&G Bar space at West 78th Street.

Adler fears that neighborhood's active retail landscape could be threatened by the proposed zoning laws, which would limit the size of storefronts on Columbus and Amsterdam avenues to 40 feet wide. The new regulations would also cap the size of banks on Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam avenues.

If the law goes into effect, longtime businesses that rent storefronts more than 40 feet wide that are grandfathered into the neighborhood could see their rents skyrocket, because their landlords would suddenly own scarce — and therefore much more valuable — 40-foot-plus storefronts, Adler said.

"They're going to become very valuable properties and that's not fair to tenants," Adler said.

The beloved Popover Cafe and Barney Greengrass on Amsterdam Avenue have slowly grown over the decades, but they could face an uncertain future under the new zoning, Crain's recently reported.

The same could be true of larger establishments on Columbus Avenue such as brunch hotspot Isabella's, Ocean Grill, and Uno Chicago Grill, Adler said.

The proposed zoning restrictions could also keep desirable businesses from opening in the neighborhood, said BID board president Robert Quinlan, a real estate developer who owns several buildings on Columbus Avenue.

Popular women's clothing chain Anthropologie was recently considering a move to the Upper West Side, and the store wanted at least 50 feet of frontage for its 10,000 square-foot shop, Quinlan said. That would be impossible under the proposed retail zoning laws.

"They'd be wonderful, but they couldn't come in under these rules," Quinlan said.

A Planning Department spokeswoman disputed the idea that the new zoning would halt Columbus Avenue businesses which need to expand.

Under the proposed regulations, businesses would be free to grow inside a building as long as they keep their storefront 40 feet wide, the spokeswoman said. Storefronts larger than 40 feet account for only 7 percent of the stores on Columbus and Amsterdam, she said.

"Being able to continue to provide a diversity of retail goods and services to this area is what has driven this effort," the spokeswoman said. "The proposal both maintains the multi-store retail character and provides a framework for expansion."