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Economy

Empty Stores Are Killing New York City. Is This the Fix?

For decades, the city has mulled rent control for small businesses. As the city’s wealthiest areas fill with vacant shops, lawmakers are taking another look.
A store closing in Brooklyn, which, like the other boroughs of New York City, has been struck with a wave of vacant storefronts as rising rents squeeze out smaller businesses.
A store closing in Brooklyn, which, like the other boroughs of New York City, has been struck with a wave of vacant storefronts as rising rents squeeze out smaller businesses.Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The story of New York City in 2018 is a story of empty storefronts: Nearly every week, another longtime shop or eatery announces that they are closing, after years—if not decades—in business. (Latest addition: The much-loved 35-year-old Tex-Mex joint Tortilla Flats, in the West Village.) In my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, it’s Steinway Street, a retail strip that’s now undergoing pedestrian-focused improvements to lure back visitors, because there are too many vacancies. And when new tenants do move in, their name is often Starbucks. Or Wells Fargo.

The booming Big Apple has become a “capitalist paradox,”as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently wrote—a “rich ghost town.” As its unique mix of retailers and eateries metamorphose into a monotony of nail salons, chain outlets, and bank branches, the city is becoming “a high-density simulacrum of the American suburb.” Several studies indicate that 20 percent of Manhattan’s storefronts lie vacant—concentrated in the borough’s most trafficked areas, where commercial rents have soared. The worrisome trend—which exists outside of Manhattan, too—suggests a question: What happens when a city becomes too costly to offer the very ingredients that people look for in a city?