Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mom and Popped

As the NY Sun is reporting today, the City Council's Small Business Committee will hold a hearing to explore the possibility of providing tax breaks for small local retailers in an effort to preserve the diversity of neighborhood shopping. The council action is in response to the proliferation of national chain stores-the West Side is particularly overrun-in neighborhoods that are losing their distinct local flavor as a result.

We are totally sympathetic with the effort, no one has been more out front in the defense of neighborhood stores than we have over the past twenty five years; at the same time that we realize how difficult it is to craft any legislative response to this homogenization process. We do know, however, that this administration would be the last one we'd expect to have any real concern about this process: there has never been a bigger cheer leader for the national-Wall Street financed-chains than the mayor, someone who grew up in Medford and has no empathy for neighborhoods.

That is why the comments of "small business commissioner" Walsh don't surprise us at all. As the Sun reports: "The city's small-business commissioner, Robert Walsh, who is scheduled to testify at a council hearing today on small businesses, said he is concerned that during a strong economic period, people "are frowning upon, if you will, many of the nationally recognized businesses."

Clearly, this is someone who not only doesn't get it, it is someone whose comments indicate that it is time for a change at the top of the agency that he so poorly represents. Let's not forget, Walsh is the same guy who defended Ikea against the efforts of the Fifth Avenue BID to stop the giant retailer's push into Sunset Park; and Walsh, as the commissioner ostensibly in charge of the city's public markets, sat mutely by while 23 small distributors were evicted from the Bronx Terminal Market.

New York City neighborhood need retail diversity, it's what makes the city vibrant and unique. This is something that the Municipal Arts Society has recognized, as its current tribute to Jane Jacobs underscores. MAS executive director Vanessa Gruen makes the point well: "We are losing much of what makes New York so special," she said. "There are so many neighborhoods that are losing their neighborhood services. Banks are moving in. Duane Reades are moving in. It is going too far." And she goes on to point out; "" Jane Jacobs was all about neighborhoods. Not only preserving your neighborhood, but enjoying your neighborhood," Ms. Gruen said. "We are trying to get ordinary New Yorkers to become active in what happens to their city."

Clearly, what we need is a policy that recognizes the importance of diversity, but at the same time, one that is sensitive to the need to not enact well-meaning regulations that unwittingly dampen entrepreneurism. Our friend Steve Malanga is right about what the council should, in general, be doing: "Their goal should be to lower property taxes for all businesses in the city," he said, adding that the proposal to create targeted property tax cuts for neighborhood retailers is "a very narrow approach to a very large problem." Malanga's right, although we'd add the amelioration of the regulatory burden to his prescription.

At the same time, however, and perhaps zoning is one approach, we need to try to preserve the affordability of neighborhoods so independent retail activity can be preserved. This is especially important because some vital retail services-such as supermarkets-are disappearing from many neighborhoods of the city. Maybe health concerns will stimulate the mayor and his minions to have some needed rachmones for neighborhood stores?