We’ve been talking a lot about topics like high rent blight, the takeover of chain and big box retail, the devaluation of our social economies, and the hold private investment and small business debt have on independent retailers, especially in creative or maker sectors.
But that’s only a part of where I want the Design Talk by MV conversation to go—aside from what’s happening, it’s important to highlight what’s being done about it. So this week (the last in a three-part series about the paradox of commercial rent increases during a time of struggling brick and mortar retail) I will focus on the silver lining, the moving and shaking, the badass solutions-givers and advocates, and the beauty in our seemingly precarious future.
To kick things off, here’s a quick hit list of some of the loudest and most productive voices on the scene, fighting the good fight:
The Small Business Congress, whose URL is savenycjobs.com, uses as its underlying driver the reality that both the social mobility of lower income families, as well as the spirit of the diverse neighborhoods across NYC, are in danger when political and civic structures aren’t set up to support independent business. The congress hosts rallies, collates relevant news, publishes city bills and proposals, and suggests intentional action to assist the preservation of our city’s small businesses as cultural resources.
Publicized on the Small Business Congress’s site is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. Sponsored by Take Back NYC—a group of residents, businesses, and advocates dedicated to empowering small business owners—the jobs survival act focuses on the problematic issue of commercial lease renewals. It proposes new standards and rights for tenants, with the intention of establishing a new, healthier “normal” for fair lease-tenant relations. (Read more and sign their petition here!)
#SaveNYC is a crowd-sourced coalition whose mission is to preserve the character and uniqueness of New York City by supporting its cultural institutions and independent commercial entities. Its avenue for change? Calling for direct response from landlords, city hall and council members, and us.
Vacant New York is another nice resource to have on our side. It’s a site that has amalgamated information on businesses that have had to shut their doors—signs of the tough commercial real estate present.
Educational, preservationist, and small business-forward, the Greenwich Society for Historic Preservation is another incredible and under-lauded voice in the fight for supporting small business. Through a focus on saving the culture and character of Greenwich Village, the advocacy group is politically, civically, and legally active in tangible ways. It also suggests ways for getting involved in the preservation of your own local community or neighborhood advocacy initiative.
In addition to coalitions and resources, it’s important we do our best to stay in the know about what our city, and our city officials, are doing behind-the-scenes. One way to do this is to seek out our local community boards. Landing websites - like this one for NYC -can clarify these boards’ capabilities, meeting agendas, who their civic servants are, and more. (Council Member Robert E. Cornegy, Jr. and Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President, for example, are two civic servants who’re on our side! Check here to see Brewer is up to.)
As the Times and other outlets have reported on in the past year, there’s a progressive proposal by New York City to amend a rent tax exemption parameter. This is happening through our city council (other cities have just as active, productive city councils!). To break it down, retailers that spend more than a certain amount of rent in a year are subject to a rent tax; now, though, with even the smallest retailers now often paying enormous rental fees for their storefronts, it’s no longer fair. Thus, City Council introduced a bill to raise the “amount of rent” line to $500,000, loosening (a little) the tight leash of bureaucracy around New York City’s small businesses.
A different Times article addresses “another idea that merits consideration — …some sort of a “vacancy tax” on those landlords who leave storefronts unoccupied for years.” Genius, I say!!! Genius! Or, rather… sensible, and about time.
New York City Council puts forth additional progressive proposals in its 2017 plan for retail diversity. This includes the recommendation to expand “government programs that offer incentives to businesses such as grocery stores,” or ones that would serve a needed civic and neighborhood-based service. It also includes stickier solutions, such as offering tax breaks to developers “in exchange for lowering the cost of their retail space.” It sounds mutually beneficial, but I’ll keep my distance and play witness for this first (potentially Faustian) exchange, if it’s enacted. Either way, I believe in the power of the city’s attention, research and reporting on these issues, and I’m excited to see what their official plan for “diversity” yields in the coming year.
Okay. I lied. I can’t contain my enthusiasm for all that’s being done in this great city to advocate for small business! I still have more goodness to share!
So next week, stay tuned for the true final installment of solutions, resources, and friends in the fight for sustenance of the independent business model.
In the meantime, mark your calendar for our inaugural Design Talk Roundtable on Feb. 6, the “real life” version of Design Talk by MV. Find more info here, and get ready to rub shoulders with and learn from some really amazing industry leaders like Maxwell Ryan of Apartment Therapy, Malene Barnett of Malene B Atelier, Darin Vest of L’Oreal Americas, and my co-host, Jay Norris of Guesst, a new space-sharing retail platform.
As told to Emily R. Pellerin