The Upper East Side stationary store Blacker and Kooby has been around since 1963, at the corner of 88th Street and Madison Avenue in the heart of Carnegie Hill. For decades, the neighborhood mainstay sold art and school supplies, pens and pencils, notebooks and other items.
Earlier this year, Blacker and Kooby closed its doors, the latest in a long line of small businesses that have been forced out of storied neighborhoods due to an expired lease and an increase in rent. Co-founder Fred Kooby said he was asked to pay double the $35,000 in rent he was paying for the space. Instead, the store moved to Lexington Avenue under the leadership of his daughter, Vanessa, and now offers only custom printing services.
Vanessa Kooby said that while business is good, every day she gets a handful of former customers dropping by or calling to express their longing for the old storefront. “I mean, do I miss my old store? Sure,” she said. “Do I miss Madison Avenue the way it used to be? Sure. But this is really what Carnegie Hill is about right now on Upper Lexington and it worked out for me.”
Retail rents in Manhattan are shockingly high– and going higher, according to recent data. The Real Estate Board of New York, in its most recent study, reported double-digit increases in the major shopping districts throughout the city. Throughout Manhattan, retail rents exceed their pre-recession highs of 2008.
But while real estate experts hail the rising rents as evidence of strong global interest in New York, many local, independent small businesses simply cannot generate enough revenue to stay in the monied neighborhoods they once defined.
So what’s to be done? Just as the city saw an affordable housing movement in the 1950s that carries through to today, some experts are wondering whether it’s time for a similar effort to help small businesses.
Steve Null, a longtime proponent of affordable retail rents and director of the Coalition for Fair Business Rents, said the solution has been around since the 1980s, and doesn’t involve retail rent control, which he said is a non-starter.
“There’s a very clear solution that’s been on the table for 25 years that just gives rights to the tenants, that’s all it does,” said Null. He is referring to the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which originated with the former progressive Councilwoman Ruth Messinger, who represented the Upper West Side. The bill establishes guidelines for landlord and tenant negotiations during the commercial lease renewal process, and has seen eight different iterations since failing in the City Council in 1986.
The latest attempt in 2009 was stymied – even though it had the necessary number of votes to pass – after Council Speaker Christine Quinn refused to bring it to a vote because she wasn’t confident it would hold up in court.
Null said Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to helping small businesses – streamlining the city’s bureaucracy and reigning in excessive fines – misses the mark.
“Small businesses, regardless of how long they’ve been there or how successful they are, cannot stay in business competing with these banks and franchises paying these obscene rents, it’s impossible,” said Null.
Borough President Gale Brewer worked under Messinger when her office tried to pass the original version of the Small Business Job Survival Act, and she’s been trying to find a viable solution ever since then. Brewer said that when small businesses leave, it’s like “the heart and soul is torn out of the neighborhood. I’ve seen children cry when small stores leave and are replaced by a 7-Eleven or a drug store.”