Richard Epstein

City Planners Run Amok

The Upper West Side (UWS) of New York City operates in a moral and political universe different from my own. Currently, its confident progressive worldview has precipitated a major land use controversy. On the urging of the UWS “community” and its elected officials, the City’s Department of Planning has endorsed this modest proposal “for new or expanding establishments” on Broadway, Columbus, and Amsterdam avenues. These are major commercial streets, yet the proposal seeks to limit store frontage on them to forty feet for general retail and twenty-five feet for banks.

The proposal earns its “modest” label, because, as the Planning Department confidently notes, the rule would not limit the overall size of the business, the configuration of its interior space, or its kind of operations. Still, many businesses and banks currently exceed the proposal’s limit, often by multiples of four and five.

The locals insist that this regulation is needed to preserve the distinctive character of the neighborhood from large banks and major retail chains, which gobble up valuable frontage in ways that drive out small local businesses. The UWS is said to be “largely unique” because the space available for commercial use is limited relative to the population density, driving rents up. The supporters of the bill are determined to protect the “mom-and-pop” stores from unapologetic corporate behemoths. The local community board has unanimously approved this proposal over the vocal opposition of the City’s commercial real estate interests and passage now awaits approval by the City Council and then the Mayor. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

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(photo credit: India Amos)

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