East Villagers map out a plan to keep chain stores in check

At the E.V.C.C. workshop, mapping out a strategy to preserve local mom-and-pop stores, from left: Udo Drescher, an East Village resident; Gayle Raskin, owner of Jane’s Exchange children’s and maternity consignment store; Karen Loew, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s director for the East Village and special projects; and Tania Vargas, owner of Goat-Milk kids’ wear.

At the E.V.C.C. workshop, mapping out a strategy to preserve local mom-and-pop stores, from left: Udo Drescher, an East Village resident; Gayle Raskin, owner of Jane’s Exchange children’s and maternity consignment store; Karen Loew, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s director for the East Village and special projects; and Tania Vargas, owner of Goat-Milk kids’ wear.

BY GERARD FLYNN  |  Recently at a meeting of the East Village Community Coalition, about 20 local residents and merchants gathered to share their views on the impact that the influx of so-called “formula retail” stores is having on their lives and on their neighborhood.

Chain stores like the Gap or 7-Eleven — the latter which brought demonstrations recently when it opened on Avenue A at 11th St. — were the focus of much of the evening’s discussion. Yet, while the talk was indignant in some quarters, it was mostly quiet, if not nostalgic, for a neighborhood that has gone through a veritable “gut renovation” of gentrification for the last 20 years or so.

As groups sat around with colored markers mapping out their consumer habits or browsing a specially created pocket map showing alternatives to 7-Eleven, Melanie Trohn, a policy analyst with E.V.C.C., outlined the social forces driving the long-term trend.

Mostly, she said, the loss of the neighborhood’s former retail character is driven by the bottom line. A bakery might only be able to pay $9,000 a month for a coveted spot, but the “corporate complex” can pay a landlord $30,000 or more, she noted. Also, unlike the small business owner, the formula-retail store can draw upon a large pool of cash and credit to stay afloat in hard times, whereas the small business sinks from few customers, she explained. In other words, the small store just can’t compete.

On top of that, landlords might not even rent to small business owners, but rather hold out for the bigger payout. A credit-card culture also favors the larger retailer, drawing in many more customers, since competing independent business owners might not take plastic. Hence, the old-time bakery becomes an upscale juice bar. Jack Kerouac’s East Village becomes a mere dharma-bum brand.

As formula-retail outlets roll through her old neighborhood, one East Village resident, Kate Puls, said, “It’s hard to say, but I’m scared to think what the neighborhood might look like in 10 years.” She has seen the continuing loss of local character, as shoe repair stores, fish markets and bakeries disappear.

What formula-retail stores and banks are creating, said local activist Rob Hollander, is a kind of corporate monoculture, a “homogenization” of a neighborhood that was once renowned for its cherished cultural and commercial diversity.

As if the newcomers have a caffeinated preference for corporate culture, Puls recalled how a local chain, The Bean, lost one of its three stores to Starbucks, which she heard paid $38,000 for about 1,000 square feet.

Hollander pointed to the strip along 14th St. on either side of Union Square, where many small stores have been swallowed and supplanted by standardized replacements.

But what can be done in a market economy when corporations have every right to pay a landlord the market rate in rent and push out anyone who can’t? Actually a lot, some said. A “resurgence” in opposition to formula retail is on its way, so there’s hope for the 400 or so small businesses that remain in the East Village, it was noted.

As one activist stated, “Politicians may not listen to hippies, but they will listen to business owners.” There was a loud call for considerably more political influence to be brought to bear on the issue, from the City Council and Community Board 3, to state government in Albany.

“Anyone looking for an issue can just look out the window,” one activist reminded everyone, as the evening came to an end and as the talk turned more militant to street protests.

As if on cue, state Senator Brad Hoylman stepped into the room, just as a recorded church bell was pealing 8 p.m.

When asked what’s objectionable about larger commercial establishments pursuing their lawful right to do business in the East Village, Hoylman pointed to the loss of mom-and-pop stores and the subsequent erosion of the East Village’s uniqueness. These retail “pioneers,” he said, gave the neighborhood its distinct quality in the first place, long before the arrival of the chain store.

In addition to looking at zoning as a means to curb the chain stores’ spread, he said that C.B. 3 and politicians like his colleague state Senator Daniel Squadron “would and should” get more involved as the issue gains community traction.

At the workshop, Hoylman heard from a participant about a bill related to formula-retail zoning that began in the Hamptons. According to Sara Romanoski, E.V.C.C.’s executive director, Hoylman subsequently wrote her last Friday to report he has now signed on to that bill.

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