Councilman seeks way to keep small stores in business

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Running a beauty salon in a small shopping strip where around a third of the stores are vacant hasn’t made Yetta Lazri’s life easier.

“It’s gotten worse,” since the neighborhood’s beloved Kappock Cafe and Wine Bar on the now desolate stretch of Knolls Crescent shuttered last July, meaning one less reason to visit the already quiet nook of Spuyten Duyvil.

“It’s like a ghost town now,” Lazri said over the din of blow dryers in her Touch of Sun Hair and Spa. “It’s depressing. It’s very dead. For people who live here, for the businesses, it’s very bad.”

Lazri’s landlord, Friedland Properties — notorious for its strategy of leaving stores vacant until they snag the tenant and rent they want — owns several other vacant stores on her strip, including the defunct cafe, as well as long-gone Knolls Cleaners and Tiffany Nail. A representative of the company refused to comment.

Now, a local lawmaker wants to stem small business deaths ravaging a city marred by vacancies. Around a fifth of Manhattan’s commercial storefronts remain empty, up from roughly 7 percent since 2016, The New York Times reported, citing real estate firm Douglas Elliman.

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez heralded the Small Business Jobs Survival Act — which he introduced last March — as a solution to the city’s small business “crisis” — one he’s said is in league with the city’s transit woes. Rodriguez claims the bill will alleviate stress on small businesses to relocate their storefronts by establishing fair and due process in lease renewal negotiations.

City council held its first hearing on the measure in years on Oct. 22, while hundreds rallied outside City Hall urging Mayor Bill de Blasio and city council Speaker Corey Johnson to back it, according to published reports.

The legislation aims to reduce a growing number of vacancies citywide by encouraging both parties — property and small business owners — to “act honestly” and “engage fairly” when negotiating a commercial lease, Rodriguez said in a statement. It would establish regulations on security deposits, landlord retaliation and conditions that would prompt arbitration.

The bill “is not commercial rent control,” Rodriguez said. Rather, it “gives both parties more clarity and rights in the lease renewal process.”

While the bill has gained support from some small business owners and more than 20 council members, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration warned the measure could pose several legal issues and might make matters worse.

The city supports efforts to help small business owners secure a fair lease, said Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for the mayor. In fact, the city’s small business services department launched a program last year to provide free legal assistance to tenants in lease negotiations.

Landlords and big chains could have an advantage under the bill because they’d have means to hire consultants and present more compelling testimony to arbitrators, Gregg Bishop, commissioner for the city’s small business services department, said in testimony in front of the council.

“Though this legislation attempts to create a system to provide fair lease renewal terms, it is important to note it does not guarantee favorable terms for the tenant,” Bishop said. “The party that makes the strongest case — often the party with the best resources — is likely to have a more favorable outcome.”

Furthermore, the arbitration and negotiations the measure calls for would impede deals, hurting both owners and tenants, said John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade group that represents developers and landlords.

“We are vehemently opposed” to the legislation, Banks said in testimony, “which will do nothing to solve the underlying issues behind storefront vacancies, and instead would have a catastrophic impact on our local economy.”

While Councilman Andrew Cohen is “profoundly concerned” about vacancies plaguing his district, he’s not sure this bill is the answer.

“I support a vacancy tax, which I really think gets to the heart of the problem,” Cohen said. “I don’t want vacant stores.”

But as he sees it, the legislation focuses more on preserving existing businesses.

“I’m not sure that that’s in the best interest of the community,” Cohen said. “Having a dynamic marketplace makes sense to me — to have new businesses come in that bring new services that reflect the community as it is currently, not how it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.”

In general, Cohen would like to see the de Blasio administration do more to address vacancies citywide.

“The administration is sort of nibbling on the edges in offering support to small businesses, making services available,” Cohen said. “But I don’t think they’ve done enough. I don’t think they’ve come up with a plan.”

Lazri knows little about the bill, but wishes the city offered her more support standing up to powerful landlords like Friedland.

“As a business owner, we have no rights,” Lazri said. “The city “take(s) taxes every month, but when it’s time for our rights and what we need, no door was ever opened for us.”

But other than collecting taxes, Lazri’s not really sure what the city does to better her prospects, and believes other business owners would agree.

“It’s not just about the landlord,” Lazri said. “It’s about somebody helping you as a business. Clients come, they’re happy, we’re happy. But we need support from the city.”

Although discussions on the bill began last week, Rodriguez wants to move to a vote as soon as possible.

“Local small businesses are the backbone of our economy,” he said. “This crisis hasn’t happened overnight. We’re against the clock. This bill has been debated over and over. It’s time for us to implement it and bring light to a problem that’s affecting our whole city.”

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