Testimony of New York State Senator
Thomas K. Duane before the New York City Planning Commission Regarding the Special Enhanced Commercial Districts (ULURP applicaton 120145 ZMM and Zoning Text Amendment 120144 ZRM)

April 11, 2012

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York State's 29th Senate District, which includes a significant portion of the proposed Upper West Side Enhanced Commercial Districts, the site of the proposed C1-5 overlay, and the surrounding neighborhood. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this ambitious and innovative proposal.

While I understand the concerns of those, including the Columbus Avenue BID, who oppose this proposed rezoning, I support Manhattan Community Board 7's (CB7) March 2012 resolution conditionally approving it. I believe this initiative will provide measurable benefits for residents, workers and visitors on the Upper West Side. I also wish to commend the New York City Department of City Planning and New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer, along with current CB7 Chair Mark Diller and former Chair Mel Wymore, for their leadership in advancing this proposal. CB7's resolution, which was adopted with no dissenting votes, includes sensible changes to the proposed amendment to the Zoning Resolution, and I encourage the New York City Planning Commission (CPC) to adopt them.

As you know, the proposal includes two new Special Upper West Side Enhanced Commercial Districts: "EC-2" along stretches of Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues and "EC-3" along Broadway, as well as a zoning map amendment for the west side of Columbus Avenue from 76th Street to 77th Street to establish a C1-5 commercial overlay within the existing R10A District. The proposal seeks to use reasonable restrictions on street frontage and transparency to preserve the retail diversity that endures on many Upper West Side blocks and to promote active streetscapes and unique retail character.

Under the existing zoning, landlords and developers are increasingly leasing commercial spaces with large, monotonous storefronts that occupy much, if not all of their blocks. For example, the east side of Columbus Avenue between West 75th Street and West 76th Street has only a large chain drug store and a bank (absurdly, this drug store includes one of its neighboring bank's ATMs, which are available in abundance right next door). This same drug store chain occupies most of another block just two blocks to the north on Amsterdam Avenue, and the bank also has another location in close proximity. The net effect of the trend toward oversized, redundant storefronts is to erase the unique retail character and engaging pedestrian experience that have long been hallmarks of our neighborhood. Adding insult to injury, enlargements of existing storefronts are sometimes achieved by warehousing unsightly vacant shops with the goal of eventually combining them. I believe that the proposed rezoning would successfully preserve the many traditional multi-store blocks that remain and discourage artificial vacancies without imposing an undue burden on property owners and large stores.

I am also pleased that this proposal will help to sustain and promote small businesses. Even in the most favorable market conditions, the majority of small businesses could not succeed in the large commercial spaces proliferating in our neighborhood. Therefore, while the explicit goals of the proposed zoning text amendments are to encourage retail diversity, street activity and storefront transparency, it could also help preserve small, family-owned businesses. As you know, small businesses on the Upper West Side, as in many parts of the City, have struggled to survive in a voracious real estate market. Many have disappeared. Local businesses contribute to their neighbors as safe havens for children, partners for community projects and familiar faces for longtime residents, in addition to the aforementioned retail diversity and active street life. While many in government have sought to help our small businesses, we often find ourselves with too few arrows in our quivers, relying on the good will of landlords to lower rents or organizing campaigns to save them. This proposal is a sensible approach to proactively support existing small business and promote new ones.

With respect to the proposed exceptions to the special use provisions, I urge CPC to adopt CB7's recommendations that its own reviews be conducted concurrent to reviews by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, that "high ground floor vacancy" and "reasonable distance" be numerically defined, and that all authorizations be subject to community board review. That last clause is especially important, as I strongly believe that everybody benefits when City agencies receive input from community stakeholders. I also believe that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's recommendation that the minimum depth of retail establishments be reduced from 30 feet to 15 feet merits serious consideration by CPC. This change would augment the benefits of the proposal for businesses like florists and shoe and watch repair stores that typically operate in smaller spaces. Ultimately, I am confident that the broader rezoning proposal is in the best interest of the Upper West Side and I ask CPC to adopt these modifications to help perfect it.

Again, I urge CPC to approve the proposed zoning amendments with the aforementioned modifications and I thank you for considering my comments.

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