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Empty gestures: Face facts about why New York City storefronts are vacant


Ask a proper progressive New Yorker about all those empty storefronts on their favorite commercial strip, and they just may subject you to a screed about how rapacious landlords squeeze every last dollar out of poor merchants.

A new report by Controller Scott Stringer paints a far more complicated picture. We have seen the enemy of brick-and-mortar stores in New York City, and it is...well, it’s all of us, and especially our elected officials.

Stringer leaves no doubt that retail vacancy rates are up over the last decade. Though Staten Island has been especially hard-hit, no borough’s been spared.

But the causes of the scourge are manifold. Sure, rents are up by an average 22%, a bit faster than the rate of inflation. That’s something.

What’s risen far faster, per Stringer: property taxes. Payments by retail tenants doubled in aggregate over the last decade, from $1.1 billion in 2007 to $2.3 billion in 2017. Government caused those hikes.

Meantime, Stringer says the time it takes to get a state liquor license is rising, as is the share of alteration permits — say, conversion of a store into a restaurant — that take more than 30 days to get approved by the city’s Department of Buildings.

Finally, and most powerfully, the city’s consumers have chosen en masse to buy more and more via Amazon and elsewhere, which means there are more labor-intensive restaurants, bars, coffee shops and nail salons but fewer of just about everything else.

Don’t blame just the landlords for the fact your neighbors like the prices, selection, or convenience of one- or two-day delivery. Not just your neighbors; you do too.