Oversize stores are still a big problem in Soho and Noho

Topshop, like other oversized retail stores along Broadway in Soho and Noho, has earned neighboring residents’ ire by keeping its lights on all night long. It’s just one problem that locals and Assemblymember Deborah Glick say is caused by the illegal, jumbo-sized stores. Villager file photo

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Illegally large retail spaces continue to plague the Soho and Noho neighborhoods, and Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee and Assemblymember Deborah Glick want answers from the city’s Department of Buildings on how it plans to deal with the issue going forward.

The oversized retail spaces — which are greater than 10,000 square feet — technically violate the zoning regulations for the area’s M1-5B manufacturing-based zoning. To have a retail space greater than 10,000 square feet, retailers are required to go through a special-permit process via the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Glick said. “We don’t have to try to find some other new process that we have to create and alert them to. … I think we already have the methodology. It’s just that it’s not being utilized.”

In a letter to D.O.B. on May 18, Glick singled out six specific retailers that were found in violation of the zoning rules last year. Four of those violations have been dismissed — against Zara, Uniqlo, Hollister and Best Buy, all along Broadway — although Glick detailed some of the questionable reasoning behind their dismissal.

For instance, one violation was dismissed because it was originally incorrectly documented by a D.O.B. inspector, who called the zoning district commercial instead of manufacturing, as C.B. 2’s Land Use Committee highlighted in a letter to D.O.B. last month.

Glick also detailed how Hollister skirted the zoning text by having an individual lease on each floor. Each lease was less than 10,000 square feet and listed under individual companies. One floor was leased to Hollister, while another was leased to Abercrombie & Fitch, which is Hollister’s parent company. The loopholes may technically make the space legal, Glick wrote — but, in practice, the locations are in violation and still harm the surrounding neighborhood.

Two violations remain, at Topshop, at Broadway and Broome St., and American Eagle, at Broadway and E. Houston St. Those two retailers each paid an $800 fine but continue to operate in spaces larger than 10,000 square feet.

Community members, however, say that the oversized-retail problem goes beyond a handful of violators. The massive stores disrupt neighbors, with bright lights often kept on all night long, noisy overnight deliveries, and a harmful impact on retail diversity in smaller store spaces, according to residents and small business owners.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to shut down operations that employ a good number of people,” said Pete Davies, a member of the Broadway Residents Coalition. “However, there are things retail operations could do, in terms of practice and procedure, that would make them less conflicted in the mixed-use area.”

Davies has long advocated against oversized retail in Soho and Noho, and lives above one of the oversized retail spaces found in violation last year. If the oversized retail went through the city’s ULURP public review process, community members would have an opportunity to suggest better practices, such as mitigating bright lights, limiting deliveries to certain hours and making other changes.

“We don’t know what they plan to do to cure it or what D.O.B. is doing to assure the cure is put into effect,” said Davies, referring to the remaining violations at Topshop and American Eagle. “We want to know what the agency that is responsible plans to do.”

The agency doesn’t have any answers — at least, not yet.

“D.O.B. is assessing whether large retail stores in the area are in complete compliance with the Zoning Resolution,” a D.O.B. spokesperson said in a statement. “This process is ongoing. In addition, we are reviewing the proposals from Assemblymember Glick and Community Board 2.”

The D.O.B. spokesperson added that large retailers along Broadway in Soho were in compliance with zoning and construction regulations when they were first built. Since late last year, the department hasn’t received any complaints about the matter.

Retail stores larger than 10,000 square feet are legal in this manufacturing district with a special permit from the city, or if stores aren’t interconnected and each space of less than 10,000 square feet has its own street entrance, according to the department.

The growth of jumbo-sized retailers in the area has caused Broadway to become like Times Square, in some ways, with massive advertisements and sidewalks packed with tourists.

“Those of us who live on Broadway get off Broadway as quickly as we can,” said Michele Varian, a Broadway resident and owner of a small business, a home goods boutique at 27 Howard St.

Varian feels that the massive retail spaces have drastically changed the neighborhood. The oversized spaces impact the ability of small businesses to thrive, she said, adding that landlords may sit on a vacant space, waiting for one large retailer to take it at a higher rent.

“I can certainly understand where building owners want to deal with as few tenants as possible,” Glick said. “We can’t control all market forces. But it is illegal to rent spaces that are over 10,000 square feet in the Soho / Noho area.

“When they do that, they’re violating the law, and they should not get away with it,” she stressed. “So, if they’re renting 30,000 square feet to one retail enterprise, that’s three times as much as the zoning allows. Then, in that instance, they may be denying a small business an opportunity to be located in an area that they believe is good for their business.”

However, following the law, Glick noted, is one way to control the factors shaping retail.

“That is our control on market forces,” she said. “We do have the law. Follow the law. That might then result in less upward pressure on rent.”

Some might criticize community activists fighting against oversized retailers as “anti-business,” noted Bari Musacchio, who owns Baz Bagel, on Grand St. between Baxter and Mulberry Sts. But Musacchio disagrees with that assessment, noting that small shops play a big role in the local economy.

“It’s actually really pro-business because every single one of these individual places creates more jobs and diversified places for people to spend their money,” she said. Her bagel shop has 22 employees, and she feels her business is connected to the neighborhood in ways that oversized retailers are not.

“Right now, we have a Times Square-style tourist volume coming through this neighborhood,” she said. “You’re kind of trampled on by the big retail.”

The C.B. 2 Land Use Committee gave D.O.B. detailed suggestions on how to address the area’s oversized-retail problem. These recommendations include steeper fines for violating the zoning rules, significant penalties for improper self-certification filings to the department, and better training, management and resources for D.O.B. inspectors and attorneys, as well as hearing officers at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings a.k.a. OATH.

The Board 2 committee requested that D.O.B. create a “powerful incentive” for retailers to follow the law, including ratcheting up fines for repeat violations to five figures, and imposing heftier fines and revoking self-certication privileges for licensed professionals who file false self-certifications with D.O.B. The committee added that D.O.B. inspectors appear to be improperly trained on zoning rules, while attorneys and OATH hearing officers lack detailed, nuanced understanding of the zoning text, as well.

“Balance is needed here, along with solid and consistent enforcement of local zoning,” the C.B. 2 committee wrote in its June 22 letter to D.O.B., City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“The review and enforcement system is broken,” the committee added. “C.B. 2 understands that resources for enforcement are limited and D.O.B. personnel may not have the precise training to correctly evaluate each situation.”

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