Report: Morningside Heights Empty Storefronts and Community Needs

An Executive Summary and Conclusion follow.

Small businesses in New York City are shutting down at an alarming rate. Across the five boroughs, the citywide retail vacancy rate increased by 45% from 4.0% in 2007 to 5.8% in 2017. [1]. Rates of vacancies are higher in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan; however, the growth in vacancy rates in Manhattan remains troubling and outpaces that in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The empty storefronts left in the wake of closed businesses represent not only the deprivation of formerly available goods and services but also the loss of communities in which these “mom and pop” stores play an important part. 

To view the full report, please click here. A fully detailed appendix of participant responses is available here. This document was shared at the town hall meeting organized by Upper West Side Save Our Stores in December 2019.

The social forces leading to the closure of stores and businesses are powerful and complex. Not only do small businesses today face intense competition from large chains and online retailers, commercial rents have skyrocketed across Manhattan’s retail corridors by as much as 89%. [2]

The Morningside Heights Community Coalition has decided to respond pro-actively to the crisis of empty storefronts in our community. As an alliance of local residents, organizations, and other stakeholders committed to maintaining and improving our neighborhood in Upper West Manhattan, MHCC is well-positioned to highlight the needs of local residents and to engage key players in our neighborhood who can address the problem. By making the needs and preferences of our community known, we hope to contribute to the development and resilience of small businesses in Morningside Heights.

In July of 2019, an MHCC sub-group gathered input from the MHCC Action Committee and through dialogue and discussion developed the survey format, listing the most important categories to include. In September of 2019, MHCC conducted the MHCC Empty Storefronts and Community Needs Survey in order to determine what Morningside Heights residents viewed to be critical needs in the community.  The survey was issued to more than 1200 MHCC members, with over 200 individuals completing the survey online, of which an estimated 85% reside within Morningside Heights’s geographical boundaries. Respondents were asked to rank preferences for small business types that they would like to see within the community: stores, services, entertainment venues, and restaurants. Respondents were also provided the option to submit free-form responses.

According to the respondents, the most highly-desired stores in Morningside Heights include (in the following order): women’s clothing stores; thrift stores; home and garden stores; children’s clothing stores; and dry cleaners. The most highly-desired services include urgent care centers; spaces for yoga, T’ai Chi, or bodily movement classes; after-school childcare centers; community meeting spaces; and senior centers. The most highly-desired cuisines to be represented by neighborhood restaurants included Mediterranean and Greek; Middle Eastern; Indian; Japanese; and Mexican cuisines. Residents also indicated a strong interest in a local movie theater, as well as for vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, Kosher, and Halal restaurants.

Free-form responses evinced some general themes among respondents concerning their general attitudes on the development trends in Morningside Heights. In particular, respondents noted:

  • “You should not have to leave your neighborhood to buy someone a gift.”
  • “…need a second hand clothing store we can communally support.”
  • “Locally owned businesses.  No more chains and franchises!”
  • “Workshop place for learning new skills.”
  • “Theater that shows docs and foreign films.”
  • “Co-op that works with the farmer’s market in selling fresh food.”
  • “Columbia focuses on needs of transient students, not long-term residents.”

Conclusion

The Morningside Heights Community Coalition is engaged in keeping our valued storefronts open and thriving.  Empty storefronts deprive communities of services and amenities that contribute to the overall quality of life. These survey results are a step toward identifying and prioritizing community preferences so that we can more effectively advocate with our city agencies, elected officials, building owners, local landlords, and private institutions.


[1] “Retail Vacancy in New York City: Trends and Causes, 2007-2017,” September 25, 2019. https://comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/retail-vacancy-in-new-york-city/.

[2] Lynch, Dennis. “Pop-up Stores NYC: NYC Retail Market.” The Real Deal, August 2017. https://therealdeal.com/issues_articles/are-pop-up-shops-becoming-a-permanent-fixture/.

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