One Last Time

One Last Time

We’ve officially reached the dog days of summer, which normally means final trips to the beach, going out for ice cream, or completing that outdoor adventure that eluded you all summer. This year, it means something else, too: a chance to say goodbye.

We at Graffito have trended toward the fatalist end of the spectrum since the beginning of the pandemic, and despite the sunny summertime skies, we’re all deeply, deeply worried about what happens to the restaurant community come fall. We’ll have a lot more to say about that in the coming weeks, but in the meantime do yourself and your local restaurant a favor and go out to eat. If they have an outdoor patio, great; if they do not, then get takeout and have an al fresco picnic. Who knows what restaurants will be around in a few months?

Reading this NY Times article over the weekend is what spurred me to make a public service announcement for one last hurrah. According to the article, over 1200 restaurants have closed in New York since March 1. That’s staggering. New York has responded with a Save Main Streets program, which the City of Boston’s Economic Development department ought to essentially copy.

New York’s Save Main Street Plan plan would:

Deliver Immediate Financial Relief:

  • Establish Door-to-Door Outreach Teams to help business owners tap into the remaining $150 billion in the Paycheck Protection Program. Given that only 12 percent of New York City businesses and sole-proprietors have received a PPP loan, it is clear that a huge number have not taken advantage of this program. What they need is swift, hands-on support, and the City should provide it in conjunction with banks.
  • Offer City tax credits on business income taxes, to speed immediate relief to businesses, help them pay back rent, and cover the costs of reopening—from the utilization of sidewalk space, to interior remodeling that provides social distance and protective barriers, to outreach and advertising.
  • Make permanent the City’s temporary cap on third-party food delivery fees. In mid-May, the City Council voted to temporarily cap the fees and commissions that restaurants paid to companies like Uber Eats and Seamless. To help these businesses both during the pandemic and beyond, delivery fees should now be capped permanently at 15 percent and non-delivery services at 5 percent.
  • Eliminate the City’s 25% tax on liquor licenses. Meanwhile, the State should expedite the issuance of new liquor licenses, continue to ease regulations on alcohol pick-up and delivery, and repeal the recent executive orders that require food to be purchased along with alcohol and place the onus on businesses to enforce open container laws.
  • Allow businesses a “cure period” to address and fix violations, rather than fining them immediately. Moving forward, any business violation that does not pose an immediate hazard to the public should be granted a 30-Day “cure period” to address and rectify the issue. Rather than taking a punitive approach and issuing a fine, the City should grant all businesses the opportunity to remediate problems.

Provide City Support for Re-Openings and Startups: 

  • Waive permitting and inspection fees for businesses that take over a vacant space in the next 10 months. This will incentivize businesses to act fast and begin to revive our commercial corridors.
  • Work with New York City’s technology community and local business schools to create a NYC Tech Corps that helps small businesses design websites, help purchase business software, and set up digital payroll, sales, and inventory tools.
  • Eliminate expeditors, the for-profit fixers that many small businesses are forced to hire to navigate the Department of Buildings, and replace them with in-house Business Advocates that create faster approvals for all applicants.
  • Help immigrant entrepreneurs scale up, extend into new markets, and open second businesses. Small Business Services should help immigrant entrepreneurs expand into new markets and open new stores. Marketing, promotion, and translation services should be offered to help reach new customers beyond their immediate neighborhood and the City should pilot a new program to help proven, successful entrepreneurs open second businesses throughout the city, expediting permitting and helping with the costs of modifying these new spaces.

Resuscitate High-Vacancy Corridors:

  • Create a comprehensive, public-facing inventory of vacant storefronts to help entrepreneurs locate spaces quickly, so that would-be business owners can find space quickly without resorting to expensive brokers.
  • Provide tax incentives for independent retailers in high-vacancy retail corridors. Independent business owners who are planning to locate and are currently located in corridors with vacancy rates above a certain threshold could receive a credit against either the Commercial Rent Tax or the real property tax.
  • Don’t let vacant spaces stay vacant, be creative. From large malls and department stores to small retail frontage, the pandemic will likely lead to an uptick in vacant space in various neighborhoods. In the near-term, many can and should be leveraged to provide additional public school space as the City struggles to re-open safely. In the long-term, other civic uses might include libraries, artist studios, community centers, and childcare centers.
  • Extend the moratorium on commercial evictions and provide legal assistance to businesses involved in legal disputes. To protect struggling businesses owners and help keep them afloat, Albany should extend its moratorium on commercial evictions, which expires on August 20. The moratorium should continue until the city is fully reopened. Meanwhile, the SBS Commercial Lease Assistance program—which, confoundingly, was cut in the recent budget—should be relaunched to provide legal representation to small businesses in commercial lease disputes and negotiations

Build Back an Even Stronger Small Business Environment:

  • Repurpose street space for community and business use, not just automobiles, while dramatically expanding space and infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Our small businesses are embedded in a larger neighborhood and street network that is critical to their viability and success. Without active, well maintained and easily accessible neighborhoods, businesses and communities cannot thrive.  To that end, the City should:
  • The City should create a vast system of “shared streets” where cars are only permitted to travel five miles per hour in residential neighborhoods and select commercial streets. As in Barcelona and Montreal, these shared streets can be integrated through a larger network where car travel is largely confined to major thoroughfares, while quieter residential and commercial blocks are primarily left to bikes, pedestrians, cafes and restaurants, and leisure activities
  • The City should expand its “open streets” program to clothing stores, bodegas, nail salons, and other businesses that could display their products and offer their services outside of their storefront.
  • The City should begin widening commercial and residential sidewalks to make them more passable for shoppers, strollers, and wheel chairs and provide more space for crucial amenities like street seating, street vendors, bus shelters, garbage bins, bike parking, water fountains, and public bathrooms.
  • The City should add 100 miles of bus lanes over the next two years, with a special emphasis on increasing access to non-Manhattan commercial corridors. Nearly 35 percent of those working along these commercial corridors walk, bike, or ride the bus to work
  • Improve neighborhood mobility and increase bike ridership by over 1,000 percent in the next three years with an ambitious bike agenda:
    • Expand Citi Bike to all five boroughs and provide a deep subsidy for low-income New Yorkers.
    • Increase the number of protected bike lanes by 100 miles in the next two years and by 350 miles in the next five years with a deliberate effort to create an interconnected and robust network of lanes. To this end, the DOT’s Green Wave Plan should be fully funded and accelerated and the Regional Plan Associations’ Five Borough Bikeway should be pursued. Mandate that all office buildings and schools provide bike storage inside buildings, as well as secure bike racks on every commercial block.
    • Follow the lead of Paris and Italy and subsidize the purchase of e-bikes. 
    • Dramatically improve bike lane maintenance and enforcement by utilizing the City’s inter-agency Street Conditions Observation Unit and introducing traffic cameras in bike lanes along commercial corridors.
    • Offer classes to new and inexperienced cyclists to help them ride safely in the city. Across the five boroughs, there are many New Yorkers who are interested in biking, but lack the experience and confidence to ride. Organizations like Bike New York provide a wide range of classes for new riders to help them get started. The City should help to promote these classes and provide them with funding to help expand their offerings.
  • Connect aspiring entrepreneurs to retiring business owners with a “re-entrepreneurship program” that creates continuity rather than closure of small businesses, with special assistance for M/WBEs and CUNY MBAs. Every time a business closes, jobs and wealth are lost as well, and the City should be doing more to help existing businesses transition to the next generation.
  • Task the newly announced Chief Diversity Officers with increasing MWBE goals on competitive city contracts and creating a preference for MWBEs on non-competitive contracts.

Stringer’s plan was accompanied by an accounting of the small business wreckage created by the pandemic. The Comptroller’s analysis found that retail, food services, and personal services industries have accounted for 39 percent of recent job losses, despite representing only 18 percent of the City’s workforce prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 60 percent of independent, Main Street businesses are run by immigrant New Yorkers and over 53 percent of the workforce is foreign-born, accounting in part for why unemployment among these communities has surged more than twice as high as white New Yorkers from February to May.

To read the full report, click here.

So go get your dumplings or tacos or chicken parm or grilled halibut or whatever it is your crave. And please, wear your damn mask.

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