Identity Crisis

Shuttered stores have residents asking, 'Why live in the West Village anymore?'

Le Figaro Café closed after 50 years, Jack Kerouac (inset)

The West Village, with its regal brownstones, tree-lined streets and loads of
little shops, has long been considered one of the most desirable neighborhoods to live in in New York. But is it actually that cool anymore?

A recent article in the New Yorker highlights a crisis that the neighborhood is facing: High rents are forcing out many of the very mom-and-pop stores that have made the West Village so special, leaving behind a lot of empty storefronts and chain stores.

“It’s very depressing,” said Rebecca Gilpin, who has lived in the West Village for about 16 years. “When I walk up Sixth Avenue now, just between West Fourth and Carmine, there are four closed shuttered stores. And two of them have been empty for years.” Among her favorite stores to close are The Lively Set, an antiques store on Bedford, which closed in 2013 and Le Figaro Café on Bleecker, which had been around for 50 years before closing in 2008. It once counted among its regulars Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan; it is now empty.

As Wu explained in his article, the proliferation of shuttered stores is mainly due to landlords raising the rents steeply on existing tenants, squeezing them out, and then sitting on the properties hoping that a chain store like a Bank of America or a Starbucks will come along and be willing to pay the higher rent. This practice is threatening to turn one of Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhoods (the average condo price was $2.8 million in 2014 according to CityRealty) into a retail desert, similar to what occurs in poor and struggling neighborhoods where retailers do not want to risk opening a store.

The phenomenon is called “high-rent blight.” According to Adam Tanaka, a PhD candidate in urban planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, one of the causes of this blight is the lack of legal protections available to retail tenants compared to residential tenants (rent control does not exist for stores, for instance). While this could be seen to encourage competition and allow the best stores to thrive, it often doesn’t work out that way.

“People often say, quite ideologically, that the market is the best way to ensure diversity. And if you plan things too much, you squeeze out the entrepreneurial spirit of business owners,” he explained.

Any changes to commercial rent regulations would need to balance keeping the neighborhood exclusive and special, while encouraging a variety of stores to thrive. “You want to maintain that magic mixture of different types of shops and different types of people that makes the area desirable,” Tanaka said, “but once it becomes too desirable, the whole place becomes kind of like CVS.”

Of course, the West Village isn’t quite there yet and Gilpin, for one, isn’t about to leave anytime soon. “There’s no reason to move out yet,” she said, noting that “there’s still a lot of good stuff here, a lot of charm and energy.” 

[column col=”1/3″]

Median prices

Studio         $549,000
1 bed           $1,200,000
2 beds         $2,725,000
3 beds         $7,950,500
> 3 beds      $15,500,000[/column]

[column col=”1/3″]

Median rents

Studio         $2,795
1 bed           $3,873
2 beds         $5,225
3 beds         $10,700
>3 beds      $21,000[/column]

Source: StreetEasy