Walk along any commercial strip in New York City this summer (as we did) and you're bound to pass an open door expelling a blast of cool air. It's a smart strategy: a store that gives overheated passersby a brief respite from the heat is a store luring customers inside.
It's also illegal.
In 2008, the New York City Council enacted a local law that prohibits chain stores and those larger than 4,000 square feet from keeping their outside doors propped open while operating an air conditioner or central cooling system.
The council had the city's power grid and the environment in mind. The practice of leaving doors open while air conditioners are running can increase a building's electricity usage by 20 to 25 percent, according to the Long Island Power Authority. During the summer months, that raises peak power demands and puts local utilities at greater risk of power shortages.
As for the environment, "10,000 square foot business that leaves just one door open can... release 2 tons of unnecessary carbon dioxide into the air," Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said in a statement last week, citing a Con Edison number. Carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are one of several factors raising global temperatures and sea levels.
Brewer urged owners and managers of street-level businesses to keep their doors and windows closed while running air conditioners and called for the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) to intensify its enforcement of the law in light of last week's heat wave. She did so a week after DCA Commissioner Julie Menin announced an education and outreach campaign encouraging businesses to "Shut the Front Door!"
DNAinfo surveyed three Manhattan centers of commerce — Herald Square, Times Square and Union Square — to see just how many businesses appeared to be violating the spirit and letter of city law on Friday, when temperatures peaked near 90 degrees. Here's what we found:
► HERALD SQUARE: As far as we could tell, this commercial strip hosted the highest concentration of offenders. On the north and south sides of 34th Street between Fifth and Eighth avenues, 31 out of 87, or 36 percent of street-level businesses had at least one door open. Twenty of those businesses qualify as chain stores, according to the city's administrative code, with "five or more stores located within the city of New York that are engaged in the same general field of business and conduct business under the same business name."
The Levi's store on 34th St. had its doors propped open on Friday. In an email, a spokesperson told us the store was "recently experiencing HVAC issues and ... has had the door intermittently [open] because of that problem." The DCA issued the store a warning this year, an agency representative said.
► TIMES SQUARE: On the west side of Seventh Avenue and the east side of Broadway between 41st and 47th streets, 13 out of 51, or 25 percent of street-level businesses had propped open at least one door. Eight would appear to have been violating the law: six businesses qualify as chain stores — including American Eagle Outfitters, which let cold air escape at both its Times and Herald Square locations — and two businesses may occupy more than 4,000 square feet of space: Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (1,350 square feet on the ground floor and about 11,200 square feet on the second floor) and Hard Rock Café (5,500 square feet on the ground floor, according to a New York Times story).
Both restaurants fit the law's definition as offending commercial structures because neither have outdoor seating areas. (A Hard Rock Café spokesperson contested the business' status as law-breaking; in an email, she told DNAinfo that the "active retail space of Hard Rock Café Times Square is just under 4,000 sq. ft." )
The DCA issued Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. a warning in 2012.
The Aeropostale store in Times Square welcomed customers with open doors on Friday. The store received warnings from the DCA in 2013 and 2015.
► UNION SQUARE: Most of the stores facing Union Square were law-abiding. On the streets surrounding Union Square — Union Square East, Union Square West, and 17th and 14th streets between Union Square East and West — seven out of 49, or 14 percent of street-level businesses kept at least one door open. Maoz, the falafel fast-food restaurant, and Forever 21, the fast-fashion behemoth, both appeared to have broken the law by virtue of belonging to chains.
The DCA issued a warning to the Forever 21 store in Union Square in 2024 and fined the store for a second violation this year.
So what's the penalty for a New York City business wasting energy and polluting the environment? The first time it's caught violating the 2008 law, the store receives a written warning. For a second violation within 18 months, the city will charge fines of $200 for each door open, and for any additional violations within that period, $400 per door.
Consider that Forever 21 brought in an annual revenue of $2.6 billion in 2011 and an operating profit of $319 million; if you multiply $400 by the probability of the law's enforcement and add that to the energy costs of maintaining a cool temperature, it's still probably not enough incentive for Forever 21 to change its ways.
That's why the DCA has stepped up its number of inspections this year — just since June, the agency has inspected 860 businesses — and why two City Council members have introduced a bill amending the law, now under consideration by the Committee on Environmental Protection. The bill would extend the law to cover small stores, require chains stores to post a notice on each door reminding customers that violations can be reported to 311, and raise the fines for noncompliant businesses. Businesses would pay as much as $1,000 for each outside door open.
All the businesses named above, with the exception of Levi Strauss and Hard Rock Café, did not return DNAinfo's request for comment.