If you walk through Manhattan’s SoHo neighbourhood, you’ll likely find upscale coffee shops or clothing stores. But on almost every block, you’ll also see abandoned storefronts sporting “For Lease” signs.
A new site called Vacant New York highlights the city’s vacancy problem in detail. Launched in 2016 by freelance software developer Justin Levinson, the site features an interactive map that shows almost every unoccupied storefront in Manhattan. Vacant spaces are highlighted in red, and users can zoom in to find out their addresses.
The goal of Levinson’s project is to provide quantitative data on Manhattan’s storefront vacancies, which wasn’t previously available in one place, he says
“The project began with a mix of frustration and curiosity. Almost every single store, venue, grungy dive bar, and cheap restaurant I visited as a starry-eyed punk rock teenager and questing 20-something was gone. My neighbourhood began to look decrepit,” Levinson writes.
Here’s what SoHo looks like:
To compile the data, Levinson scoured brokers’ sites and went on long walks. He also invites users to email him to add or correct the map to keep it up-to-date. In total, he has documented about 1,000 vacant retail spaces, some of which have been empty for years.
Here’s the area around Times Square and midtown:
While Levinson acknowledges there is no single cause of NYC’s higher-than-normal rate of vacancies, he points to long commercial leases and sky-high rent prices as the two main reasons the situation has arisen.
That view shared by some journalists and real estate experts as well, since both of those factors can make it hard for independent shops to stay afloat. For example, small restaurant leases average 10 years with fixed annual percentage increases, while those for large food chains are usually longer. Since many landlords want to maximise their earning potential, they sometimes hold out for a big chain (that would likely have a better credit score and survive longer than a new, independent shop) — even if that means keeping the space vacant for years, according to reports by The New York Times and Bloomberg. Many older mum-and-pop businesses are also not able to afford rising rents, especially in expensive, gentrifying neighbourhoods.
“As much as I bemoan national chains and the homogenization of the city, you can argue to me that the nationals are beneficial: they can weather economic downturns, they create jobs, they provide cheap goods and services to people who can’t afford much. I’ll probably still think you’re wrong, but I’ll listen to the arguments. Vacant storefronts provide value to nobody,” Levinson says.
He adds that he hopes community groups and policymakers will use the map to advocate for changes, like creating financial incentives for landlords who extend leases to small shops or giving legacy businesses landmark status.
If New York doesn’t deal with its vacancy problem soon, Levinson says, it could get even more out of control.
It’s no longer just a tenant versus landlord issue — it affects the landscape of the city as a whole,” he says.