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New York City Lends a Hand to Retailers With Open Storefronts Program

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Just as New York City has allotted more outdoor space to help financially strapped restaurants, Mayor Bill de Blasio has rolled out a similar program for retailers and storefront businesses.

The Open Storefronts programs allows storefront businesses to use a portion of their sidewalks to display merchandise, sell goods, complete transactions and provide areas for lines. Starting Friday and running through the end of the year, the added open-air space is designed to help shoppers feel more comfortable making their purchases, while coronavirus cases are on the rise throughout much of the country.

The concept of giving stores and small businesses more outdoor space is one that other cities like San Francisco were relatively quick to adapt to, in response to the coronavirus crisis. New York’s version is expected to affect 40,000 businesses and support 450,000 employees, according to information provided by de Blasio‘s office on Wednesday.

James Mettham, executive director of the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership, “applauded the city for building on the success of outdoor dining.“ He said, “The ability to use public space for retail is critical for the 95 stores in the Flatiron and NoMad that have reopened or never closed because they were deemed essential.”

Open Storefronts builds on the success of two other initiatives led by city officials — Open Restaurants and Open Streets programs that were started to help businesses rebound during these difficult times.

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Some leaders of New York City’s Business Improvement Districts have been appealing to de Blasio and city officials to initiate a program to help the city’s retailers, especially those that are independently owned and have been significantly impacted by the drastic downturn in pedestrian traffic and international visitors. Last month the Meatpacking Business Improvement District unveiled its “Future Streets,” a three-day event that was designed to play up the need for more public space and to help the neighborhood’s 200 businesses.

In a statement released Wednesday, de Blasio said, “Rebuilding a fairer, better New York City means maximizing use of our outdoor space, helping businesses keep their employees and giving New Yorkers more reason than ever to shop local and enjoy their communities.”

The mayor also said that he is “looking forward to finding more ways than ever to reimagine our urban landscape without elaborating,” Rosanna Medina, owner of Fajas La Grenua, an undergarment business, spoke at de Blasio’s press event unveiling the Open Storefronts initiative.

Mettham “urged“ city officials to continue “to develop innovative, creative and responsible uses for the public realm during this pandemic and beyond.”

With Midtown Manhattan and other neighborhoods largely deserted, due to corporations’ extended and in some cases open-ended work from home policies, retailers have been especially hard hit. Commercial vacancies have been on the rise among retailers that have been struggling to attract shoppers. In addition pre-COVID-19, escalating rents for New York City commercial real estate had forced some businesses to relocate to more affordable locales.

As of 2017, the vacancy rate for storefronts in New York City was 5.8 percent, compared to 4 percent 10 years prior. The prevalence of pop-up stores in recent years has been a sign of that. The plethora of empty spaces sparked the creation of a blog dedicated to that — Vacant New York.

As part of the city’s new Open Storefronts plan, stores must maintain an eight-foot clear path of sidewalk from the curb for Open Storefronts to operate. Retailers cannot use the adjacent space and any outdoor furniture and goods must be taken inside when the businesses are closed. Stores can also use the curb land directly in front of their businesses during normal business hours.

Jonnel Doris, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Small Business Services, noted that more than 240,000 small businesses are “the backbone of our economy.”

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