Prosperity has returned to America, or at least to Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. The proof: Yesterday I saw an empty storefront with a notice on the door saying that it would soon house a shop selling “artisanal popcorn.”
Admittedly, New York City is not typical of America, and Eighth Street isn’t even typical of Greenwich Village. It has borne the brunt of NYU’s ravenous appetite for real estate, and as NYU has come up in the world, so too has the surrounding area. College neighborhoods used to be a bit scruffy, filled with impecunious students craving cheap beer, food, and occasionally books. Now it’s all rich kids and rich professors. So Eighth Street, once known for shoe stores and noodle shops and places to buy used clothing, today is lined with hairstylists and boutiques and restaurants with whimsical names. And, soon, artisanal popcorn.
To be fair, this has been going on for a long time. A couple of decades ago, the sports columnist Mark Kriegel wrote wistfully: “Eighth Street was over when they shut down Orange Julius.” It’s been said that New York City is the only place where people complain when their neighborhood improves, and while that may not be entirely true (nostalgia for the old nabe is just a variety of the universal longing for one’s lost youth), New Yorkers stuck in tiny apartments do tend to compensate by taking a proprietary interest in the surrounding streets, striving to keep everything on them exactly the way it was when they first moved in and fell in love with the city.
This tendency can also be seen on the Upper West Side, where a proposed zoning regulation would purportedly help small businesses by restricting new establishments to 45 feet of frontage on the neighborhood’s main avenues (and just 25 feet in the case of banks, for some odd, presumably OWS-inspired reason). Leaving aside any philosophical objections to zoning that one might harbor, as well as the question of whether New Yorkers might actually appreciate the convenience and low prices of big-box stores, just like the rest of humanity, it makes sense to ask: Is this regulation really necessary to achieve its stated aim? And will it work?
Regarding the first question, the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo says no. On Columbus Avenue, most of which would be covered by the new rule, the existing “retail mix is remarkably diverse, encompassing medium-size boutiques and galleries, tiny neighborhood service shops, cafes of all kinds, and even a few Irish bars.” Revising the rules would “impose complex, confusing limits on the widths and depths of new stores, restaurants and banks” that would “limit landlords’ leasing options and . . . complicate negotiations with prospective tenants.”
Moreover, some existing small businesses would end up getting squeezed out instead of helped. Stores that currently exceed the frontage limits would be grandfathered into the zoning system, exempting them from the new rules. The artificial scarcity would make those properties much more valuable, which means that the small businesses now occupying them would see their rents shoot up when their leases run out: “‘They’d all become targets instantly,’ said Rafe Evans of Walker Malloy & Co., a local brokerage. ‘Their landlords would be sitting on gold mines.’”
Gentrifying neighborhoods follow a predictable life cycle, just like forests. As starving artists and would-be actors start to colonize the area, dingy small businesses get replaced by mid-market chain stores; these give way to designer ice cream as single professionals invade; and these, in turn, yield to upscale galleries and furniture showrooms as the brokers and hipsters start families and decide not to move to Darien after all. (A similar process occurs with restaurants: First chop-suey joints with bulletproof glass surrounding the cashier, then Domino’s, then innovative and surprisingly reasonable Peruvian and Burmese hole-in-the-walls, then places you can’t afford.) Trying to control and direct these natural forces with one-size-fits-all zoning rules is about as effective as flogging the waves of the Hellespont.