East Villagers looking for more independent businesses will gather on Wednesday night to talk about a dramatic new zoning proposal aimed at altering the neighborhood — specifically, Community Board 3 wants fewer chains, more mom-and-pops, and a limit on the number of bars and restaurants per block.
It’s just a proposal for now, and according to a City Planning Commission spokeswoman, CB3 hasn’t even submitted an application, yet. A major zoning change like this requires a lengthy process with steps like more community meetings, an environmental study, and engagement with City Council and the Borough President. Which is to say: if this happens, it won’t happen soon.
Still, should the East Village become a special zoning district like the board is proposing, it could have a major impact on the future of the neighborhood.
Several restaurateurs in the neighborhood who Eater spoke with are open to the idea — or really, anything that might help make running a business easier. But they were also uniformly skeptical about the proposal, saying that it either doesn’t target the right problems or that in practice, it might end up backfiring by leading to more vacant storefronts.
For one, it’s not clear that putting in limits will put a big dent in the problem of rising rents or other costs of business, several restaurateurs said. Will and Julie Horowitz, the brother-sister duo behind Harry and Ida’s, say that conversations about rent caps, payroll taxes, and “the outrageous number of superfluous city and state permits and fees required by small restaurants” would do more.
“It feels like their goal is to preserve only the aesthetics of the neighborhood rather than address the real issues,” Julie Horowitz wrote in an email.
And aspects of the proposal like limits to the amount of space a single business can take over would prevent more banks and Duane Reade, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean quality mom-and-pop businesses would go in if rents are still high, Will Horowitz says. Low-cost businesses like cupcake or frozen yogurt shops can still proliferate, and the question of how accessible new businesses are remain, he adds. “The idea of going so directly after footprints of space sounds more like a vision drafted by a PTA meeting.... entitled ‘make the East Village cute again’,” he writes in an email.
Plus, the board wants more daytime foot traffic and businesses that “do not have a disruptive effect on residents,” according to the proposal. While several East Village restaurateurs said they’d love to have a more boutique daytime feel to the neighborhood, history has shown the neighborhood persists as a nightlife destination. Efforts to drum up lunch business have been futile, several of them say.
Huertas owner Nate Adler, who also helped spearhead a neighborhood restaurant collective, said he can’t afford to be open for lunch. Even brunch was a struggle, and he shut it down after a year. “It was a waste of time and money,” he says.
With New York University nearby and so many young people, East Village has always been and will likely always be more of a nighttime place, says Ravi DeRossi, who’s owned a slew of bars and restaurants like Death & Co and Avant Garden for two decades. He’s tried to open up during the day and it’s never been successful.
“We’re packed at night every night of the week,” he says. “I can’t get people to come in the daytime. I would love it if I could.”
Then, of course, there’s the kicker of limiting bars and restaurants per block. Existing restaurants and bars aren’t directly threatened by the new proposal, but Julie Horowitz noted that the concentration and diversity of restaurants in the neighborhood is what makes the East Village special.
“There is strength in numbers down here, especially among the mom and pops,” she says, “and if that disappears, so will the overall atmosphere, the foot traffic, and ultimately the success of small businesses.”
And though DeRossi doesn’t mind the limit, he’s skeptical that it will work in the long-term. If it fails over the course of 20 years, the result could be more vacancies than there are now, he says.
Reed Adelson of Virginia’s, another East Village restaurant collective member, said that other changes in the city like less confusing health code rules and fines or lower real estate taxes would be more helpful, and he’s not clear on how the proposal would convince landlords to lower their rents.
He and Adler also noted that the board already has the power to help small business owners in the form of liquor license and sidewalk cafe approvals. The community board is notorious for being strict about approving new liquor licenses, and the new proposal’s 25 percent limit reflects that mindset. Adler says he was denied twice before receiving approval for Huertas.
But many of the restaurateurs asking for liquor licenses are mom-and-pop owners and serving liquor and sidewalk cafes help them stay in business, they say. Adelson says while he understands not wanting “scumbug” operators, being open to people with solid track records would go a long way. He says, “That would certainly help contribute to less vacant neighborhoods, for sure.”