A Dark Age and a Dark Mile by Lou Cespedes
When I arrive home from work and look down Nostrand Avenue, I can see in the distance the flickering of police lights, car brake lights, and changing synchronized traffic lights. It is a bit over a mile from Church Avenue to Flatbush Junction. I call it the ‘darkest mile’. If you’ve ever walked at night down Nostrand Avenue between Church and the Junction, you understand what I mean. It is an endless array of closed stores, littered sidewalks, abandoned lots, from which little activity is detectable. Truth be told, there are many dark miles in E. Flatbush, but this mile is exceptional because it is a microcosm of a larger more ominous problem; the collapse of our local businesses, and our persistent status as a “dormitory community”. Urban planners use this term to define a community that does not have a 16-hour work cycle. In our case it means we hardly have any businesses open beyond 8pm.
It is a challenge to identify the myriad of reasons why this is occurring, but over the next months I will use this editorial space to discuss these issues, and to argue for ideas that are lacking in our political discourse and among our merchant class. At the core of our business crisis are three central conditions that compound the pain, especially for black shop keepers. To create a clearer picture of these conditions, it’s worthwhile to catalogue them for our deliberations.
First, most shopkeepers are renters, just like most NYC residents. They are subject to the same pressures and ever greater forces that affect all renters alike, foremost of which is speculation and rising property value and taxes. You can’t control what you do not own, and most neighborhood storefront businesses do not own the buildings they occupy. For retailers, all over New York City, the rising cost of rent coupled with the public’s ever greater reliance on e-transactions, makes operating brick and mortar locations unsustainable.
Second, our current merchant class lacks a legacy of knowledge. This means that like our residents, shopkeepers are also aging with little incentive to re-invest in their business or pass those business along to younger entrepreneurs. Younger entrepreneurs opening storefront businesses lack the basic knowledge to negotiate equitable tenant-landlord commercial contracts, navigate community boards, Dept. of Buildings, or access capital. There is no transfer of critical knowledge and management skills from older to younger generations. Institutions within our community that are tasked with providing this vital intelligence to new entrepreneurs are either nonexistent or barely functioning. The result is that fewer entrepreneurs feel empowered to invest dollars in the unknown, risking their investments in unfair leases, where predatory landlords without proper Certificates of Occupancy place the burden of their mismanaged properties on start-ups. Those few new merchants that manage to open, particularly restaurants, often find themselves exposed to fines and delays by a maze of agencies, including Community Boards, Dept. of Health, NYS Liquor Authority, Dept. of Buildings, and Dept. of Consumer Affairs.
Thirdly and most importantly, what is driving this collapse in our business community are the landlords, seeking ever greater profits, pushing for a Rezoning of “soft sites” in E. Flatbush. These sites are large contiguous lots upon which larger and taller building could be built. This rezoning effort by CB17 and Borough President Adams is accelerating the decay of our current commercial real estate inventory. Landlords prefer to let current buildings become vacant and obsolete because there is not enough rental income they can charge for existing shops on small lots. Rising property taxes coupled with the cost of renovating these small shops becomes untenable. Buildings continue to dilapidate and shutter. By up-zoning on commercial avenues like Nostrand, the state then provides developers with tax subsidies (421-A) to promote larger mixed-use retail/residential developments, leaving “mom and pop” shops out of contention. In much the same way these developments do not provide the “affordable housing” they promise, these commercial developments will also displace our existing merchant community. If you look closely along Nostrand and New York Avenues, comparing them both north and south of Church Avenue, you can clearly see this phenomenon beginning to occur.
In her final book “The Dark Age Ahead” Jane Jacobs, the prophetess of preservation and New Urbanism, suggests that tax policy is at the heart of our woes, not only in New York, but in all big cities.
Current land-use policy by local council members and the Borough President, in addition to the regressive property taxes imposed by the city, and the abandon of property owners to put profit over community, have the cumulative effect of decreasing employment opportunities in our community, creating a “brain drain” of skilled labor in critical sectors like hospitality, banking, construction, education, and healthcare. The result; blight, gang-violence, informal commerce, and deteriorating quality business and user services.
Taking stock of our current leadership and their lack of vision in policy making, there is so much that we could do. Saving our community business class will largely depend on educating entrepreneurs and homeowners, and by creating partnerships that will allow us to use our creative resources to enable competition, ensuring growth and diversity in our service offerings.