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East Village Merchants Seek Protections as National Chains Move Into Area

By Allegra Hobbs | June 2, 2017 2:22pm | Updated on June 4, 2017 5:41pm
 Downtown Yarns in the East Village.
Downtown Yarns in the East Village.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

EAST VILLAGE — As popular chains Target and Trader Joe's prepare their East Village debut less than a block away from each other on 14th Street, small business owners and community advocates are redoubling efforts to ensure protections for local mom-and-pop shops.

The local community board has for years been discussing ways to restrict the potential rise of big-box stores in the East Village — a neighborhood known for its abundance of small businesses in small storefronts.

But after the two chains announced their upcoming stores — Target at 500 E. 14th St. and Trader Joe's at 432 E. 14th St., near Avenue A both slated to open in 2018 — merchants' concerns about the future of their livelihoods have heightened, creating a greater urgency to lock down a plan for the neighborhood.

"It's a little frightening to think that if Target is the first one to move in, then Trader Joe's, what going to stop Walmart?" said Charles Branstool, owner of Exit9 Gift Emporium on Avenue A and a director at the East Village Independent Merchants Association. "Because eventually it's only those companies who will be able to afford to move in if prices do rise, and before you know it, it's gonna be Times Square-ish."

Community Board 3's Economic Development Committee on June 7 will host a forum to gather feedback on a proposed "special zoning district" bordered by 14th Street, Houston Street, Second Avenue and Avenue D in which stores could be no larger than 2,500 square feet and could be no wider than 25 feet. Combining storefronts to make a larger space would also be prohibited under the proposal.

By contrast, the incoming Target will take up 27,000 square feet across two levels, a store rep said. The incoming Trader Joe's will span 22,701 square feet across two levels, according to The Real Deal.

Community Board 3 chairman Jamie Rogers said the board will give the proposal serious consideration.

"I won't take an opinion and the board hasn't taken an opinion on those particular developments...but I do know that a big box store doesn't have a positive impact on mom and pop stores typically, so we are sensitive to it and we are sensitive to that move in that direction," Rogers said. "They’re also big national chains, that's another sensitivity the board has always had and the community has always had."

The district would also restrict how much a given block's storefront space could be dedicated to a particular use, allowing no more than one chain store or bank per block.

The proposed overlay is one of several methods to protect retail diversity pitched last year by the East Village Community Coalition, a neighborhood organization that is also pushing for the rezoning of a corridor between Third and Fourth avenues that would limit the size of commercial developments. The need to create neighborhood protections is galvanized both by the introduction of Target and Trader Joe's to the area and by the announcement of an incoming "tech hub" to rise south of Union Square, said the organization's acting managing director.

"We're concerned about those big box stores as well as the tech hub, especially that combination of things coming to the neighborhood, especially sort of all at the same time," said Carol Crump. "It makes it really hard to keep the things that are unique and that people love about the East Village, especially for the mom-and-pop stores — it most likely obliterates so many of them."

Those dealing in the area's real estate say the arrival of those stores will likely change the character of the retail landscape, with one benefit being that it could make the neighborhood more desirable and drive up prices to live near those amenities, said a real estate agent who hawks East Village properties.

"As they build out these big box stores it's going to set a price floor — nothing will be cheaper than X because you have these amenities," said Alex Prose of Modern Residential. "Even if the apartment is terrible people are still going to be willing to live in it because of the way the neighborhood is fabricated...As the retail comes, the demand for housing in that neighborhood will stay steady but also you’ll see prices rise because those amenities will be attractive to tenants."

The June 7 forum will be the first step towards hopefully securing a protective overlay, said the community board's chair, noting the holdup in proposing a district to the Department of City Planning had always been the need to solicit feedback from local merchants. 

Once that feedback is secured and the zoning proposal is solidified as something that will be beneficial to the local businesses looking to stay in the area, the community board will draft a resolution and put the proposal before DCP, said the chair — if all goes according ot plan, that final proposal could be hammered out by the end of this year.

The forum on the special district will take place June 7 at 6:30 p.m. at 331 E. 12th St.